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Links March 2014

Typing Animal wrote an interesting article about the dangers of stainless steel in a medical environment [1]. Apparently silver and copper are best due to the oligodynamic effect. Instead of stainless steel drinking bottles they should sell silver plated drinking bottles for kids, I’m sure that lots of parents would pay extra for that.

Mark Kendall gave an interesting TED talk about a replacement for the hypodermic syringe in vaccinations [2]. His invention can reduce the cost of immunisation while increasing the effectiveness and avoiding problems with people who have a needle phobia.

The TED blog has an interesting interview with Will Potter about the use of the “war on terror” to silence journalists and the invention of the term “eco terrorism” for non-violent people who are politically active [3].

The TED blog has an interesting article by Kate Torgovnick May about designing products for sustainability [4]. It links to an insightful TED talk by Leyla Acaroglu about some of the complex issues related to sustainability [5].

Manoush Zomorodi wrote an informative article about How one college went from 10% female computer-science majors to 40% [6].

Slate has an interesting article by Jamelle Bouie showing the way that support for capital punishment in the US is linked to racism [7].

The Southern California Public Radio blog has an interesting article by Josie Huang about Suey Park and her success in using twitter to oppose racism [8].

Andrew Solomon wrote an insightful interview with the father of Adam Lanza for the New Yorker [9].

Waleed Aly wrote an insightful article about George Brandis’ attempt to change the Racial Discrimination Act specifically to allow Andrew Bolt to be racist [10]. He describes it as “the whitest piece of proposed legislation I’ve encountered” which is significant in a country with as much racism as Australia. Really we need stronger laws against racism, there should be no right to be bigoted.

A German Court has ruled that “non commercial” licenses don’t permit non-commercial organisations to re-publish material [11]. This seems bogus to me, I’d be happy to have my non-commercial licensed work published by a non-commercial publishing organisation – just as long as they don’t run adverts on the page.

Professors Woolley and Malone wrote an interesting article about their research into group performance, apparently having more women in a group improves the collective intelligence of a group, but having smarter men in the group doesn’t [12].

Susie Hill wrote an article about the SPARX computer game that is designed to treat adolescent depression [13]. They are working on a “rainbow” edition for GLBT kids and a version for Maoris. Unfortunately their web site is down right now and the version at says that it’s currently only available to participants in a clinical trial.

Tim Chevalier wrote an insightful article explaining why people who campaign against equality shouldn’t be given senior positions in corporations [14].

Zeynep Tufekci wrote an insightful article about how French High Theory and Dr. Seuss can help explain gender problems in geek communities [15].

Hannah Levintova wrote an informative article for Mother Jones about how the US based hate group the World Congress of Families incites homophobic violence in Russia [16].

Josh Sanburn wrote an article for Time about people in the Deep South who claim to be Christian giving away guns to encourage people to attend church [17]. This is the same part of the world where people who claimed to be Christian used their “religion” as an excuse for supporting slavery. I’m quitting bourbon, too much evil comes from that part of the world and I’m not buying anything that comes from there.

The Aspie Accent

I am often asked about my “accent”. The most common guess is that it’s a “British” accent, while I lived in London for about a year I don’t think that my accent changed much during that time (people have commented on the way I speak since I was in primary school). Also there isn’t a “British accent” anyway, the Wikipedia page of Regional Accents of English has the first three sections devoted to accents in the island of Britain (and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom which people often mean when they sat “Britain”). The Received Pronounciation is the main BBC accent and the accent that is most associated with Britain/England/the UK (which are three different things even though most people don’t know it) and I don’t think that I sound like that at all.

I’ve had various other guesses, the Netherlands (where I lived for a few years but mostly spoke to other foreigners), New Zealand (which I’ve visited a couple of times for conferences), Denmark (the closest I got was attending a conference in Sweden), and probably others I can’t remember.

If I actually had developed an accent from another country then it would probably be from the US. The amount of time I’ve spent watching Hollywood movies and watching US TV shows greatly exceeds the amount of time I’ve spent listening to people from all other countries. The fact that among all the people who wanted to try and guess where my accent supposedly originated none have ever included the US seems like strong evidence to suggest that I don’t have any sort of accent that really derives from another country. Also I have never had someone mistake me for being a resident of their own country based on accent which seems like clear evidence that all claims about me having a foreign accent are bogus.

Autism forums such as [1] always turn up plenty of results for a search on “accent”. In such discussions it seems that a “British accent” is most common mistake and there are often theories raised about why that is – often related to speaking in a formal or precise way or by using a large vocabulary. Also in such discussions the list of countries that people supposedly have accents from is very inclusive, it seems that any country that the listener has heard of but doesn’t know that well is a good candidate. The fact that Aspies from outside the US are rarely regarded as having an American accent could be due to the fact that Hollywood has made most of the world population aware of what most American accents sound like.

Also if I really had some sort of accent from another country then probably someone would comment on that when I’m outside Australia. When I’m travelling people tend to recognise my accent as Australian, while it doesn’t please me when someone thinks that I sound like Crocodile Dundee (as happened in the Netherlands) it might not be entirely inaccurate.

This is Annoying

The way the issue of accent is raised is generally in the form of people asking where I’m from, it seems to imply that they don’t think I belong in Australia because of the way I speak. It’s particularly annoying when people seem unable to realise that they are being obnoxious after the first wrong guess. When I reply “no” to the first “are you from $COUNTRY” question and don’t offer any further commentary it’s not an invitation to play 20 questions regarding where I’m supposedly from, it’s actually an indication that I’m not interested in a conversation on that topic. A Social Skills 101 course would include teaching people that when someone uses one-word answers to your questions it usually means that they either don’t like your questions or don’t want to talk to you.

Social Skills vs Status

The combination of persistence and misreading a social situation which are involved when someone interrogates me about my supposed accent are both parts of the diagnostic criteria for Autism. But I generally don’t get questions about my “accent” in situations where there are many Aspies (IE anything related to the Free Software community). I think that this is because my interactions with people in the Free Software community are based around work (with HR rules against being a jerk) and community events where no-one would doubt that I belong.

I mostly get questions about my “accent” from random middle-class white people who feel entitled to query other people about their status who I meet in situations where there is nothing restraining them from being a jerk. For example random people I meet on public transport.

Nexus5 Armourdillo Hybrid Case

back of case showing both layersfront of casecase standshowing the mirror surface of the Nexus 5

I’ve just been given an Armourdillo Hybrid case for the Nexus 5 [1] to review. The above pictures show the back of the case, the front of the case, the stand, and the front of the case with the screen blank. When I first photographed the case the camera focused on a reflection of the window, I include that picture for amusement and to demonstrate how reflective the phone screen is.

This case is very hard, the green plastic is the soft inner layer which is still harder than the plastic in a typical “gel case”. The black part is polycarbonate which is very hard and also a little slippery. The case is designed with lots of bumps for grip (a little like the sole of a running shoe) so it’s not likely to slip out of your hand. But the polycarbonate slides easily on plastic surfaces such as the dash of a car. It’s fortunate that modern cars have lots of “cup holders” that can be used for holding a phone.

I haven’t dropped the phone since getting the new case, but I expect that the combination of a hard outer shell and a slightly softer inner shell (to cushion the impact) will protect it well. All the edges of the case extend above the screen so dropping the phone face down on a hard flat surface shouldn’t cause any damage.

The black part has a stand for propping the phone on it’s side to watch a movie. The stand is very solid and is in the ideal position for use on soft surfaces such as a doona or pillow for watching TV in bed.


This case is mostly designed to protect the phone and the bumps that are used for grip detract from the appearance IMHO. I think that the Ringke Fusion case for my Nexus 4 [2] looks much better, it’s a trade-off between appearance and functionality.

My main criteria for this case were good protection (better than a gel case) and small size (not one of the heavy waterproof cases). It was a bonus to get a green case for the Enlightened team in Ingress. NB Armourdillo also offers a blue case for the Resistance team in Ingress as well as other colors.

MobileZap also have a number of other cases for the Nexus 5 [3].

Aldi Deserves an Award for Misleading Email

Aldi Mobile has made a significant change to their offerings. They previously had an offer of $35 for “unlimited” calls and 2.5G of data in a month for which they had to publicly apologise for misleading customers as 2500 minutes of calls a month (83 minutes per day) is no-where near unlimited [1]. They also had an offer of $15 for 2G of data.

In an email about this Aldi said “Many of our customers are using a lot less than what is included in our current $35 plan. So we will soon be introducing new Value Packs with more flexible options; meaning you only pay for what you really need and they start from just $10.“. That is grossly misleading, if they offered new plans in addition to the old ones and allowed customers to choose the plan that is the best match then it would be useful to some customers. But removing the supposedly “unlimited” plan and the $15 for 2G of data option is removing affordable options for people who want to use their phones for lots of calls or very few calls but moderate amounts of data use.

New Plans

The base rate for calls on Aldi pre-paid is $0.12 per minute and $0.12 per SMS, consider every mention of “minute” in this section to be “minute or SMS”. The Aldi Newplans page [2] starts with a $10 per month plan which offers 100 minutes of calls which would be $12 at the previous rate of $0.12 per minute. That is OK value when compared to just using the pre-paid calls if you consistently use more than 83 minutes of calls per month. However if you don’t use 84 minutes of calls (EG you don’t speak much on the phone and use Google Hangouts instead of SMS) then it’s not good value. Also the advertised data use is $5 per 100MB, which is way below what is needed for a typical user with an Android phone. My mother in law was barely able to stick within a limit of 300MB/month when that was her limit, but while using the Aldo 2G/month bolt-on she’s increased her data usage.

The smallest of the new plans costs $20 per month, it provides 300 minutes of calls and includes 300MB of data. For an extra $7 you can get another 300MB of data. For my mother in law it seems that the cheapest option on the new plans would be $27 per month, that would cover the 60 minutes of calls she might make and the 450MB of data she’s probably using. That’s significantly more expensive than her previous cost of $15 for 2G of data and $7.20 for calls and has the additional difficulty that I would have to be more involved in helping her avoid excessive data use.

The 2G data bolt-on was really good for some of my relatives, when they use that and configure their phones not to update software over 3G they never had to ask me about any problems related to excess data use. So my mother in law is facing an extra $5 per month (or maybe more depending on data use) and more time spent calling me for tech support.

The data bolt on that Aldi is going to offer in future is $30 for 3G of data to replace the previous offer of $15 for 2G of data. The cost will be unchanged for anyone who uses between 2G and 3G a month, for everyone who uses less than 2G or more than 3G the data bolt-on will cost more. There is simply no possibility for any Aldi data-only customer to save on data use. The only way someone who uses a moderate amount of data could save money is if they use more than 160 minutes of calls and less than 1G of data.


My analysis above is based on interpreting the Aldi web site. As with most telcos they aren’t trying to make things easy in this regard, it seems that the consensus of opinion among telcos is to use complex pricing to make it difficult to compare and reduce competitive pressure. I blame any inaccuracies in my analysis on the Aldi web site.

Why Aldi Shouldn’t Mislead Customers

Aldi isn’t primarily a mobile phone company, their main business is running a supermarket. The trust of customers is important to them, raising prices when competition goes away is one thing, but misleading customers about it is another. If Aldi were to honestly say “now that Kogan Mobile no longer exists there is nothing forcing us to have low prices” then I’d have a lot more respect for their company and be more inclined to shop at their supermarket.

It’s a sad indictment of our society that I need to include a “why lying is wrong” section in such a blog post.

BTRFS Status March 2014

I’m currently using BTRFS on most systems that I can access easily. It’s not nearly reliable enough that I want to install it on a server in another country or an embedded device that’s only accessible via 3G, but for systems where I can access the console it’s not doing too badly.

Balancing and Space Allocation

# btrfs filesystem df /
Data, single: total=103.97GiB, used=85.91GiB
System, DUP: total=32.00MiB, used=20.00KiB
Metadata, DUP: total=1.78GiB, used=1.31GiB
# df -h /

Filesystem Size Used Avail Use% Mounted on
/dev/disk/by-uuid/ac696117-473c-4945-a71e-917e09c6503c 108G 89G 19G 84% /

Currently there are still situations where it can run out of space and deadlock on freeing space. The above shows the output of the btrfs df command and the regular df command, I have about 106G of disk space used by data and metadata in BTRFS while df shows that the entire filesystem (IE the block device) is 108G. So if I use another 2G of data or metadata then the system is at risk of deadlocking. To avoid that happening I have to run “btrfs balance start /” to start a balance which defragments the space use and frees some blocks. Currently there is a bug in BTRFS (present in all Debian/Unstable kernels) which prevents a balance operation from completing when systemd is used in a default configuration (there’s something about the way systemd accesses it’s journal files that triggers a BTRFS bug). This is really inconvenient, particularly given that there’s probably a strong correlation between people who use experimental filesystems and people who use experimental init programs.

When you get to the stage of the filesystem being deadlocked you can sometimes recover by removing snapshots and sometimes by adding a new device to the filesystem (even a USB flash drive will do). But I once had a filesystem get into a state where there wasn’t enough space to balance, add a device, or remove a snapshot – so I had to do a backup/format/restore.

Quota Groups

Last time I asked the developers (a few weeks ago) they told me that quota groups aren’t ready to use. They also said that they know about enough bugs that there’s no benefit in testing that feature. Even people who want to report bugs in BTRFS shouldn’t use quotas.

Kernel Panics with Kmail

I’ve had three systems develop filesystem corruption on files related to Kmail (the email program from KDE). I suspect that Kmail is triggering a bug in BTRFS. On all three systems the filesystem developed corruption that persisted across a reboot. One of the three systems was fixed by deleting the file for the Outbox, the others are waiting for kernel 3.14 which is supposed to fix the bug that causes kernel panics when accessing the corrupted files in question.

I don’t know whether kernel 3.14 will fix the bug that caused the corruption in the first place.


As I don’t use quotas BTRFS is working well for me on systems that have plenty of storage space and don’t run Kmail. There are some systems running systemd where I plan to upgrade the kernel before all the filesystem space is allocated. One of my systems is currently running SysVinit so I can balance the filesystem.

Apart from these issues BTRFS is working reasonably well for me. I haven’t yet had it’s filesystem checksums correct corrupted data from disk in any situation other than tests (I have had ZFS correct such an error, so hardware I use does benefit from this). I have restored data from BTRFS snapshots on many occasions, so that feature has been a major benefit for me. When I had a system with faulty RAM the internal checks in BTRFS alerted me to the problem and I didn’t lose any data, the filesystem became read-only and I was able to copy everything off even though it was too corrupted for writes.

Less Work

I previously wrote about the idea of a Basic Income for Australia [1], that post was mainly to show how it could be introduced with little real change. That is not because I don’t think that we need real changes, but because we should consider the various changes separately as much as possible.

In terms of how society works I think that we need to move from the current model where most people are expected to work most of the time and the people who don’t work are treated badly to encourage them to work for low wages. I think that we should aim as a society to have less time spent doing paid work which means more people working part time (maybe 6 months a year, 3 or 4 days a week, or other ways of doing less than 40 hours a week * ~45 weeks) and more people who aren’t doing paid work.

The idea of 100% employment is the cause of many jokes about the Soviet Union. I don’t know how much truth is behind the jokes about needless work being done to fulfill Soviet plans, but regardless of the accuracy I think we should take such things as an idea of what not to do in our society. The Broken Window Fallacy is an example of the Soviet production problem in supposedly capitalist societies.

Here are some of my ideas for decreasing the amount of needless work without decreasing anyone’s quality of life – in fact most of these make things better for most people.

The War on Drugs

The easiest way to reduce needless employees is to end the “war on drugs”. During the course of the “war” the drug use has steadily increased and the amount of law enforcement energy devoted to it has also increased. Some estimates claim that 50% of law enforcement is devoted to it. Also some of the hospital budget is related to drug use.

I think that we should allow adults to consume any “drug” that they wish (not just tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and other popular drugs) and apply the same laws regarding product quality to all of them. That will reduce the violence related to drugs, reduce the health impact (it’s usually poor quality control that causes medical problems), and allow law enforcement to concentrate on crimes that hurt other people.

Treating drug addiction as a medical problem has been shown to be the most effective way of reducing drug use, reducing violent crime, and reducing the health impact of drug use.

Other Crime Issues

Gary Slutkin’s TED talk about treating violence as a contagious disease has some interesting ideas for reducing violence in the community [2]. Implementing those ideas on a wide scale seems to have the potential for reducing law enforcement and medical work.

Generally I think we should aim to have as few laws as possible. Whenever adults want to do things that don’t hurt other people they should be permitted to do so. There should also be an aim for laws to be consistent and easy to understand. Ideally there would be a single database with all laws in some form of hypertext (maybe some type of Wiki) so that any citizen can discover all implications of the laws that affect them.


More money should be spent on preventing people getting sick. One problem we have in recent times is silly people refusing to get their children vaccinated because they take medical advice from a playboy model instead of doctors. I think that as a society we need to do more to protect children from stupid things that their parents do and that reducing the amount of medical work is the least of the reasons for doing so.

Another problem is the quality of food. The big supermarket chains are pushing prices down which reduces food quality. The excessive use of anti-biotics is a serious threat to world health that is driven by the low price of meat.


Rodney Brooks gave an interesting TED talk about robotics [2]. He showed how robots can be programmed/trained and talked about the factory workers who want their children to do anything other than factory work. Work that can be done by robots should be done by robots so that people can do better things.


One problem that we have in Australia is rent-seeking companies being permitted to establish toll roads. To make such toll roads profitable (which is guaranteed by corrupt politicians) they close roads that might be used to bypass the toll roads. This creates needless traffic congestion (wasted work time driving). Also running toll roads involves employing people to collect the tolls and take legal action against people who don’t pay. I believe that toll roads shouldn’t exist, this will reduce the number of needless workers and make everything more efficient. Also as a matter of principle I believe that the government should own and control every monopoly in the country.

Currently in Australia most adults own cars, this involves a lot of work in car maintenance. Even when not being used a car needs to be maintained for safety. When people drive to work instead of using public transport their travel time counts as work. While time spent on a train, tram, or bus isn’t leisure time it’s a lesser degree of work than driving a car. You can read a book, play phone games, or do other recreational activities when on public transport.

Car sharing companies are taking off in urban areas, this allows some people to avoid owning a car and some families to own fewer cars. We also need more government investment in public transport including more routes, greater passenger capacity, and more service late at night.

We also need to encourage companies not to have employees working from 9 to 5 to reduce the peak demand for public transport. A short term tax incentive would do some good in this regard, if companies were to encourage their employees to work different hours for a year then it might change the norms for work enough to permanently break the 9-5 concept.

I believe that all land-based mass public transport (buses, trams, and trains) should be free. That would remove the need to pay people to collect fares and fine people who don’t have tickets, and also remove the work time involved in buying tickets. Not requiring tickets would also decrease the time needed to get on and off public transport which would improve the speed of public transport and reduce disruption to traffic. One simulation of traffic in New York City showed that collecting fares on buses slowed down traffic enough to impose costs on all workers that were greater than the fares collected – so it would be cheaper overall for people in NYC to have free buses paid by the government. I don’t think that Melbourne has congestion similar to NYC and even Sydney might not have the same economic issues. But I still think that we should have free transport for the convenience of everyone.

Google has been doing some interesting research into cars that are driven by computer, their prototypes have been shown to work well in practice but have not been approved for real use. Trains and trams are easier to drive because there is no steering so it seems that they would be good options for the first implementation of computer driven public transport. Robot trams would allow more regular service late at night and thus make the network more useful.

Stop Buying Rubbish

A significant waste of resources is the commercial events of Christmas, Valentine’s day, and Easter. A lot of marketing money is spent to encourage people to buy rubbish for other people in celebration of such events. I think that Christmas presents for children are a good thing and that even the trivial things (crackers and party hats) are OK, but adults don’t need it. Valentine’s day is OK for people who are in relationships, but coercing single people to rush to find someone so that they aren’t single on that day is bad for everyone. Most Easter and Valentine’s chocolate is rubbish, cheap and nasty chocolate in fancy wrappings. Buy a small quantity of good chocolate instead of a large quantity of rubbish.

There’s a big market for knick-nacks for adults outside of those holidays too. Stands at trade shows usually give away junk to delegates, some of it has enough value to be taken home but really it’s mostly rubbish. If you can’t sell your stuff without giving away freebies then giving away plastic toys or cheap chocolate isn’t going to make it sell.

Any Other Ideas?

Does anyone have other ideas about how to reduce the amount of work required to sustain our society? Suggestions for improvements that suit other countries are welcome too, while I’m mostly thinking about Australia while writing this I’m interested in ways of making things better all around the world.


Andrew Solomon gave an interesting TED talk about depression [1].

I’ve had problems with depression at various times through my life, about 18 months ago I recognised it as depression after reading a list of depression symptoms on the Beyond Blue site. I think that they have changed their site recently they now have an interactive checklist for depression on their web site [2] (or maybe I just missed the interactive part last time).

There is a strong correlation between Autism and depression, this is noted both in research and described on the web, Elspeth’s article on Bluehackers is a good description of this [3]. Her experiences differ from mine in some ways, but it’s within the common range of experiences you see described on Autism forums etc.

Depression is getting more widely known, organisations such as Beyond Blue and Bluehackers are doing good work in spreading information to people who might be depressed and people who know them. The general advice is to see a psychologist, which is good advice for average people.

Alexithymia and Choice of Psychologists

One problem with such advice is that it doesn’t apply so well to people with alexithymia (read the Wikipedia page) [4], that means most people on the Autism Spectrum. The Wikipedia page says “psychosomatic illness or substance abuse is frequently exacerbated should these individuals enter psychotherapy”. Based on people I know and accounts I’ve read on the Internet I expect that anyone on the Autism Spectrum who sees a psychologist that doesn’t specialise in Autism (which means most psychologists) will get a result that’s about the opposite of what one might desire. In theory a psychologist could recognise someone as being possibly on the Autism Spectrum and refer them to an expert for assessment, but I haven’t heard of that happening to an adult.

I think that most people who have some degree of alexithymia will avoid psychologists, without ever seeing one you can just know that it’s going to be unpleasant. So while you wouldn’t want someone who has alexithymia to visit a random psychologist in practice that shouldn’t happen too often as such people will be more likely to reject any advice about seeing a psychologist.

My page of Autism self-diagnosis tests has a link to an Alexithymia test [5]. If you get a high score on that test (or if taking the test seems too unpleasant) then it’s best to see a psychologist who specialises in Autism. Such psychologists are usually happy to work for people who don’t quite meet the Autism diagnostic criteria, but they may strongly recommend an Autism assessment so that they can determine the best strategies for treatment.

In terms of addressing such problems it seems that the best thing we can do is try and reduce the stigma associated with Autism. The vast majority of people on the Autism Spectrum have little in common with Rain Man. Many of the so-called Autism advocacy organisations make things worse by implying that everyone who is Autistic is unable to live an independent life which helps them in fundraising but doesn’t help us.

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.