Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Problem With Democracy

The recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for me highlighted a problem with democracy. We have Hamas, on one side firing ineffectual rockets at Israel and we have Israel fighting back with ruthless brutality with seemingly no to care for the lives lost.

Something does not quite add, up neither side wants this to happen, Israeli people do not want rockets fired at them and Gaza does not want to be bombed, the simple solution for anyone is to simply stop. But why isn’t this happening? I think the simple reason for this is the competitive nature of democracy, you may think this sounds ridiculous, but please hear me out.

Think about a criminal investigation, when a murder is committed, the first thing an investigator looks for is who benefits from this crime, if the victim has a large life insurance policy your immediate suspect would be the beneficiary’s ie. husband or wife. Now think about the Israel-Palestine conflict, who benefits? I would suggest the only group that gets any kind of benefit from this conflict is political parties that have power in the Gaza Strip and Israel. When a conflict first occurs the incumbent government always gets a popularity boost, think about George W Bush after September 11. If the conflict continues for too long the incumbent government will lose popularity, think Vietnam War. So short wars seemingly well justified are a good thing for a government’s popularity.

A sickness has spread in almost all democracies around the world and it is to win elections for winnings sake, politicians treat it like a game. We have seen it here with Tony Abbott’s 3 word slogans “stop the boats”, “scrap the tax”. Election campaigns are run like advertising campaigns, don’t say anything controversial, use catchy slogans, demonise minorities (boat people) and the best thing, make your product sound way better than it actually is. They use the most abhorrent of marketing tactics, manufacturing a problem and then offering the miracle solution. For example Tony Abbott's "budget emergency" (30% of GDP Japan is 200% USA 72%) and his promised miraculous ability to make money out of nothing. Tony Abbott lied about the budget emergency and then lied about being able to fix it - and he calls Julia Gillard a liar. Australians are about as satisfied with the Abbott government as those who purchased a NutriBullet.

I do not think it is even the politicians fault that this is happening. I think it is a fundamental weakness in a how parliamentary democracies work, it is human nature to try to win and it is also human nature to take the easiest path to victory. Couple this to an increasingly complex society, chuck in the 24 hour news cycle and you have 21st century democracy. It is far easier to develop an effective marketing campaign to sell your government than to develop real policies and win votes the old-fashioned way. As the world gets more complicated year by year policies become that much harder to develop, which makes running a marketing campaign instead of developing real policies increasingly tempting.

This is also the main reason why a conflict like the Israel-Palestine conflict continues, peace making is very risky politically, so politicians have very little to gain from peace negotiations and a lot to lose. There is no thought for what the country might lose or what other countries might lose, politicians are simply looking for their next victory not what is best for their people however unpopular it might be.

The politicians of the Gaza Strip and Israel are taking the easy path to victory and in the process screwing people they are meant to protect.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Platform War: II

Before I start this article I need to go into a bit of history. I didn't want to write a novel length piece so I have rushed through the history because there is a lot of it.

In 1984 Steve Jobs famously unveiled the Macintosh. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak witnessed a "new" operating system idea, developed by Xerox PARC called a graphical user interface - mouse, keyboard and icons on a screen. Bill Gates was also aware of this technology and his company started to develop Windows. The platform war had started.

In the beginning everybody thought that Apple would win easily. Windows 1.0 was released after the Mac and was a bit of a joke. It was not even a true operating system being an extension of MS-DOS. The Mac was easier to use, looked nice, was reliable and its look and feel was consistent whether you were in a word processor or a game - it was very intuitive.

The only issue about the Mac was it didn’t have a broad range of games. Also it was difficult to take the cover off a Mac and modify it. Computer nerds of that time had already learned a large number of DOS commands - they didn’t need a GUI. Computer game developers were also already entrenched in writing games for DOS machines. There were games like the Wing Commander series, Kings Quest and many more.

Macintosh gradually lost out, Apple lost Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became supreme dictator of planet Earth.

Steve Jobs was down but not out - and he seemed to have an uncanny ability to predict the future. He started a new company called NeXT and they started to develop an operating system built on top of UNIX grabbing lots of good stuff from UNIX’s multiple flavours both proprietary and open source. When NeXT was acquired by Apple - Steve Jobs came with it. The operating system developed by NeXT laid the foundation for OS X.

Apple devices now had a consistent operating system right across the spectrum from handhelds to servers. The iPhone and iTunes saved Apple.

Now we are entering a new technological phase with the creepy name the Internet of things (IoT). There are all these embedded computer systems popping up such as the Rasberry Pi, Beagle Bone and the Intel Galileo, Arduino Yun not to mention a number of home entertainment systems. The vast majority of these devices have flavours of Linux installed. Your toaster may one day have a version of Linux installed.

Linux is the child of UNIX and OS X is its rich uncle. Many developers use Macintoshes these days as they are (mostly) compatible with the plethora of Linux and UNIX Systems. "UNIX like" - heard this phrase? Including Android, we can now say that most computers on this planet are now driven by UNIX derivatives.

Meanwhile Microsoft has had its head under a rock continuing to focus on big business and proprietary systems. Yes they have the Xbox and Windows phone, but they have lost a huge amount of territory and didn’t even bother fighting to protect it.

Now belatedly Microsoft has started to make a few fumbling steps in the right direction. There is the One Windows philosophy which aims to do for Microsoft what OS X did for Apple. Windows on PC, tablet or phone will share a single app store and the same development environment. And there is this: Windows Developer Program for IoT. I signed up but haven’t heard back.

It looks like Microsoft is trying to make up for lost time, but I can’t help thinking they are way too late. It’s going to be interesting to see if Microsoft can change their business model to compete with Linux and OS X. Microsoft needs to understand that somebody isn’t going to buy a Rasberry Pi for $50 and then spend $100 on a Windows operating system. People also will not buy a toaster that periodically suffers the blue screen of death.

Microsoft does have a couple of things going for it.
1. The support of big business.
2. The bewildering array of UNIX-like operating systems I feel is a hindrance to development, while Microsoft only needs to worry about one family of operating systems.
3. Inertia. There are large numbers of people like me who continue to use Windows.
4. Games. Although this is slipping a bit with some titles now being made cross platform.

The second platform war has started and there have already been casualties – think XNA. Microsoft was victorious in the last war, but this one will be a hell of a lot harder and I am doubtful that Microsoft will triumph. Steve Jobs may win from beyond the grave.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Chris' Rant About the Economy and Stupidity in Government

Having a global currency would simply not work. Take the example of the European Union and the global financial crisis. Economies sometimes require action by their central banks selling or buying government bonds to alter the interest rates and control the price of a currency versus other currencies. During the global financial crisis Greece was dire circumstances - their economy had collapsed but there was no way for its currency to drop and rescue the country through promoting investment because their currency was so cheap. Their currency can't go down because it is a shared currency.

Bitcoin or gold do not make good currencies as their prices fluctuate wildly and both tend to go up dramatically over a long period. What this causes is something called deflation which is pretty much the same as putting an economy through a blender. If you have a currency that is continuously going up in price, why would you buy something if you can buy more of it the next day? Nobody spends money and economies stagnate and collapse. Workers get sacked as you don't need to bother making money if your cash reserves are going up anyway.

People get very caught up in currencies and the financial sector - are they to blame for endangering our planet? It's not money that is evil it's what people do with it - or don't do. Money in government is the problem lobbyists, Industry and other vested interests just have too much pull in government. During the Howard era pissing taxpayers dollars up against the wall Introducing the baby bonus, the first home buyers grant, giving money to private schools that don't need it - we would have had so many more options when the global financial crisis hit. At the end of the Howard era and the beginning of Rudd / Gillard - allowing the mining sector to grow too large and too fast pushing up the dollar, creating competition for jobs, both helping to destroy the manufacturing sector.

Government after government both Liberal and Labour have failed to introduce necessary financial reform. One example, that I have mentioned on several occasions, failing to crack down on the negative gearing of investment properties. This led to a boom in the number of investment properties in our capital cities which helped to push up property prices. Then we had the first home buyers grant which brought even more people into the market pushing up prices still further.

Many of the problems we are facing now were predicted decades ago, but a combination of lobbyists, vested interests, disinformation and good old garden variety human stupidity have got in the way of fixing them before they became an issue.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

1st Meeting of Melbourne Eastern Suburbs Hackers

The first meeting of the Melbourne Eastern Suburbs Hackers went awesomely. We now have a solid foundation with many passionate and active members that will help make our dreams reality. We still have a lot of work to ahead of us, but with the support of CCHS, great people and organisations that we are yet to approach - we will do it.

A big thanks to everyone who turned up yesterday. Grant, Michael x 2, Peter x 2, Nick x 2, Kerri Lachlan, Andy, Bernd and a special thanks to Jenny Fryer who provided free catering.

We have a website and also a new Google forum:!forum/easthack

This is a public forum open to members and also the general public, so post away!

And the Meetup group:

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Mandelbrot Set - Simple Addition (or should that be multiplication?)

Yesterday my friend Alana posted some images to Facebook that were reminiscent of fractals, but she actually only used a piece of paper, a pencil and an iPhone. I asked her how she did it is expecting her to answer that she used some sort of computer program. This set me thinking maybe I can do a similar thing, but with C#.

Supposedly the Mandelbrot set is supposed to be really simple, but I don’t like maths (that’s why I got into computer programming (the computer does all the maths, you see?)) and I’m not very good at it. So simple to a mathematician and simple to me, well you would need to come up with another definition of simple.

Anyway, I did my research and tried to program my own Mandelbrot bitmap maker in C#. It was the roughest Mandelbrot set you have ever seen. If you tried to render a Mandelbrot set using only 10 pixels - that is what it looked like.

I’m not alone in trying to do this as there is a lot of cut and pasted code on the Internet. Most computer programmers have edited complex code that they don’t understand. It is surprisingly easy to get such code to work and I suspect it was the case with this.

I found some great code that worked, on this site: in my opinion the code was bit overcomplicated, so I rewrote it, simplified it and switched the way it works around a bit. The code still uses the complex numbers class in C# not that I really get complex numbers yet. After reverse engineering the code I can say that I now understand how the Mandelbrot set is rendered. Here are a few pics:

This first image is what it looks like with more detailed code.

The interesting thing about this algorithm is that the number of times it iterates. The greater the detail. If it is one iteration you get a circle, with three you get this.

And with 10...

In the future I will modify it to do all sorts of things like colours and eventually do something like this:

Here is the code. Just dump it in your visual studio project folder and un-zip.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Save the Renewable Energy Target

On Tuesday I watched Four Corners it was about renewable energy and how the Abbott government tearing up the carbon tax and the impending dismantling the 20% renewable energy target. I think the carbon tax will most likely go, but there is still a chance for the renewable energy target.

The rise of electricity prices wasn’t caused by the introduction of the carbon tax, but by stupid state governments that gave incentives for electricity producers to improve their networks to cater for an assumed, but ultimately fictitious, rise in electricity consumption.

The big problem for the Abbott government is that the 20% renewable energy target has actually been too effective with the rise of electricity prices actually leading, for the first time ever, to a reduction in electricity consumption. The people who created this target hardcoded a figure that had to be reached by 2020 with the assumption that electricity consumption would continue to go up. This means that this 20% target will end up being more like 25% or even 30%.

This is great news for the environment and probably better news for electricity prices as sunlight and wind don’t have to be dug out of the ground. Energy providers on the other hand are hurting. Many people have started to supply their own energy with solar panels on their roofs. Couple that with people using less electricity and solar energy being the cheapest form of energy during peak times - such as on a 30° plus day.

Some power plants have started down sizing and people are already starting to lose jobs. This was always going to happen, there had to be a consequence for switching to renewable energy. The government conveniently ignores all the jobs that are created in the renewable energy sector. With many renewable sources energy once the infrastructure has been built that’s it and power just keeps coming in. In the case of fixed angle solar panels there is almost zero maintenance besides cleaning them when they get dirty. (With my own experiments I discovered it is actually not worth the bother to track the sun with solar panels as a very similar benefit can be achieved simply by adding an extra panel to your array.)

It is probable that if we continue building more renewable capacity electricity prices will actually start to go down eventually to a fraction of what we pay now. The Abbott government is on a stupid crusade to demolish the renewable energy industry at the cost of jobs and the planets future. They could seriously jeopardise the economic future of our country. If we are competing with countries that have electricity prices that are 10% of ours we do not have a chance. If we keep polluting the atmosphere our country could face future economic sanctions.

I believe that nothing will stop the march towards renewable energy. Solar panels are just too cheap these days and continuing to get cheaper. It is probably too late for us to be world leaders in the field of renewable energy, but the government needs to get behind industries that will be huge in the future. We want renewable energy start-ups in Australia not exported overseas.

We want politicians with vision not those who are driven by the whims of big business supporting industries that simply won’t exist in the future. Coal has been great for Australia but just because it has provided relatively cheap electricity for generations does not mean that we can continue burning it, destroying the environment and the economy. As a country it’s time for us to move on. Coal’s time is over.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Booting the Beaglebone Black (BBB) from an SD Card and then Expanding the File System.

I recently acquired a BBB hoping it would be sort of a super Raspberry Pi and it is, but it is a bit different and I am a noob and can’t read instructions correctly. So here is the right way to get your BBB working properly with a massive filesystem so you can clog it up with all sorts of apt-get garbage.

The biggest difference between the BBB and the Rasberry Pi is that the BBB has approximately 3GB of eMMC on-board memory. When you consider that the preinstalled operating system takes up a good portion of that it is incredibly easy to fill the BBB to capacity - which is what I did five minutes after plugging it into my PC. Thankfully the BBB comes with a microSD card slot and is able to boot off that microSD card.

The first step is to flash the latest version of Bone Debian to the internal memory. Go to this page on the Beagle Board website and download the file that looks like: “Debian (BeagleBone Black - 2GB eMMC) 2014-05-14”. It’s under the heading: BeagleBone Black (eMMC flasher). Ångström linux will also work but its image hasn’t been updated since September of last year…

I usually use a Windows 7 PC so the following will be burning an image onto an SD card using Windows 7. There is a lot of software out there for burning images onto SD cards hard drives and any other storage medium. The software I like best is: Win 32 Disk Imager (it's Sourceforge, sorry). What’s good about this one is that it also allows you to read images from the SD card onto your hard drive, which means you can backup your SD card whenever you want to. Also remember to use the SD formatter if you need to format your SD card - if you use the Windows 7 format function it will take hours and when it is finished you will have a corrupted SD card.

You will also need to download 7z zip so you can unzip that image file. Extract the file to your chosen location. Put your micro SD card in a card reader and plug it in to PC. Load up Win 32 Disk Imager and click the blue folder icon next to the text box labelled image file, browse to and select the image file. There is a drop down box right labelled device next to it - make sure you select the correct device. You will see the read and write buttons are now active - make sure you click write. If you click read it will overwrite the image file you just download with the blank SD card image. In fact this is how you backup your SD card reading from the Linux image on an SD and writing to an image file on your hard disk.

This will take 5 to 10 minutes, after that pull the microSD out of your PC and stick it in the slot on the Beaglebone while it is powered down and disconnected from any power supply. This bit is a little bit tricky and some people will tell you to do it differently, but this is what I did and it worked. You hold down the USER/BOOT button and then plug your BBB into the power either using the USB cable that came with the board or a separate 5 V supply. The four LEDs at the other end of the board will start flashing wait a few seconds then you can let go of the button. It can take up to 40 minutes for the internal memory to be flashed, when it is finished the board will turn itself off (according to the documentation it’s not supposed to do this, but it is what mine did, others say it is finished when all four LEDs are on and have stopped flashing).

I would debate whether it is necessary to hold the USER/BOOT button because I applied power to my BBB forgetting to pull the SD card out and it reflashed the BBB again. If you are very frugal you can stop reading now and simply remove the SD card and go on your merry way. But if you are like me and want to install lots of crap keep reading.

I planned to use the same image to operate the BBB off the SD card, but it kept reflashing the internal memory everytime I rebooted it. If I knew more about Linux I probably could have found the flag or file that initiated the flashing and got rid of it. So, I downloaded another image off the Beagleboard site: “Debian (BeagleBone, BeagleBone Black - 2GB SD) 2014-05-14”. This one is under the heading: BeagleBone (Runs on BeagleBone Black as well without flashing the eMMC). I followed the same procedure as I did earlier this time burning that image onto the SD card.

And it worked. The only thing I needed to do next was to expand the file system. This can be a little bit tricky and counterintuitive to a Windows native, and I found a great tutorial that helped me to expand the filesystem.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Eastern Suburbs Hackers Group

Ever since I went to the ConnectedCommunity Hacker Space (CCHS) in Hawthorn I have wished there was a hacker space in the eastern suburbs closer to where I live in Park Orchards. Stuff wishing I thought, why not create one?

A Hacker Space is a place where people who are interested in making things and sharing knowledge can work together to create cool gadgets such as robots or develop new technology. It’s a place where the community get access to equipment like 3-D printers, laser cutters or CNC machine tools. It is also a social place where nerds and geeks can hang out.

My first step was to create the Eastern Suburbs Hackers Group MeetUp on - a social networking site that is used to create real-world social groups such as a book club.

Our membership is open and I would like people from all walks of life to feel that they can join. There are no prerequisites or special knowledge needed. Even if you just have an idea without any clue how to make it a reality - the community can help.

Our first meeting will be at my house. The members of our group all need to meet each other and we can work out things like a group name and how our community will achieve our goal of creating a hacker space in the eastern suburbs.

Hacker Spaces are only a single element of a larger DIY/Maker Movement. The Maker Movement is the convergence of social media, the Internet, high technology, 3-D printing, free 3-D design packages, open source software, open source hardware, computer programming and more. It is now possible everyday people to create extraordinary gadgets. I also believe that the Maker Movement, and the corresponding explosion in information and computer aided design tools, is a great opportunity for disabled people to take their place as fully active members of the community.

Sign up!

The MeetUp group:

The website:

Facebook Group:

If you want more info or have any questions email me: or leave a comment.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

It Won't Happen Overnight...

Looks like Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are at it again. I am a little bit sick of writing posts like this. What set it off this time was the kidnap and murder of three Israeli boys*. Horrific crimes unfortunately happen a lot all over the world. It’s a crime not an act of war. In any other part of the world it would be handed over to the police and hopefully solved.

But what is Israel’s response to this horrific crime? Revenge. Israel has destroyed the houses where some of the "suspects" lived. This is the sort of justice that a two-year-old might think of. You called me a smelly poo poo face so I am going to destroy your sand castle. Israel’s response is even more ridiculous because it punishes the entire family of the supposed perpetrator. So you are the mother/sister/brother/father/uncle of the scumbag that commits this crime so you lose your house. How, by any stretch of the imagination using whatever moral code you choose, is this the right thing to do?

Of course not. In fact it is a crime itself. Israel gets away with this because of the large Israel lobby that equates the criticism of Israel with racism. Criticising an institution cannot be called racist in this way. Am I racist because I think that Robert Mugabe and large portions of his government have destroyed the once prosperous Zimbabwe? Of course not, it would be absurd to suggest otherwise.

The rest of the world lets Israel get away with murder - literally. The response of many Western nations to the events of September 11, 2001 make it difficult for Western governments to criticise Israel. Many of the abuses that Israel has done over the past 50 years our nations are now willing to commit. I’m talking about drone strikes and targeted assassinations.

If you know anything about history you will know that revenge simply does not end conflict. There are only two things that end conflict: sitting down and talking or annihilation of one party or both. As much as I dislike what Israel has done in its recent past, I don’t believe that they are going to start nuking Palestinians any time soon. This leaves only one solution: talking.

The rest of the world needs to come down hard on Israel and hold them to the same standards as any other nation. We need to be willing to tolerate inaccurate accusations of racism. We should not let our collective guilt over the Holocaust contribute to a never ending conflict. I think the Palestinian leaders need to rethink their strategy implementing not-violent conflict techniques - and stop lobbing rockets over the border. To a certain degree Israel is correct that other nations would not tolerate rockets being Fired over the border from a neighbouring nation. It happens to South Korea for instance. In most parts of the world, if a nation discovered that its citizens were firing rockets on another nation they would put a stop to it - they are criminals and should be treated as such. But Hamas will not stop firing rockets if Israel keeps bombing and vice versa. One side or another needs to be the better country and turn the other cheek. If Israel stopped bombing pretty soon Hamas would not have a political motive to continue the bombardment. Alternatively, if Hamas stopped, Israel would have no motive to continue their attacks.

The fact is that no conflict lasts forever. Europe was once in a far worse position. One day there will be peace in the Middle East - that is one thing I am certain of.

*I can't find a balanced story. I am absolutely disgusted by the unbalanced reporting on this issue. It seems that almost everywhere in the Western media it is a crime to criticise Israel in any way. “The reason is that those letter writers realize that Israel will find the killers of the Arab boy and deal with him in a proper court of law. Hamas, on the other hand, praises their psychopaths and elevate them to the status of national heroes.”

But Israel's response wasn’t balanced they destroyed the perpetrators houses in what they call "collective punishment". If an entire people can be at fault they should have gassed 6 million Germans after World War II – no wait make that 60 million 85 to be safe - damn there just aren’t enough Germans to make this analogy work. Maybe I can convince Angela Merkel to introduce a baby bonus...