IceTV judgement's impact on other data?

In case you hadn't heard, IceTV lost their case in the Federal Court. IceTV provide(d) an electronic programme guide (EPG) service commonly used by people with personal video recorders (PVR) that work like Tivo. In other words, you can say to your recorder "record The Simpsons whenever it is on" and the PVR, knowing the programme guide, can just schedule those recordings. Any time you want to watch some Simpsons, there'll be loads sitting there for you.

Fortunately for PVR users, there's alternative, though I suppose it's legally-dubious in that it uses screen scraping and the like to replicate the EPG. It works brilliantly though.

To my non-lawyerly eyes, this judgement seems rather far-ranging. It seems that basically any collection of data can now be covered by copyright, no matter how you recreate it. The court viewed the act of scheduling programmes on a television channel as a creative act. Having worked extensively with schedulers in a past life, I'd tend to agree, it is something these people agonise over. But I think the impact is going to be quite widespread.

For example, let's say I wanted to set up a web site that allows people to compare phone plans. I use publicly-available information about the various suppliers' pricing to build a database that is looked up to recommend a specific plan from a specific provider. This would now seem to be a breach of copyright. I work with people who design phone plans, and I can tell you it's a very creative process -- though perhaps not for the right reasons.

So this judgement seems to have impacts far beyond the commercial channels' obsession with preventing people form skipping their shitty, all-to-regular ads. It could, in fact, prevent efficient markets as in my example (though telcos go to great lengths there anyway). Is this a desirable outcome?

Well there's $5,000 saved

We've just saved $5,000 by deciding not to buy ducted heating for our house. Why were we thinking ducted heating? Well it's funny how the mind works, you end up on a path a long way from where you started. I'll step through it.

The house stays pretty cool in Summer, but it's pretty cold in Winter, so we were thinking heating. I've lived in far too many shitty rentals with draughts, no insulation and the only heating option being expensive, inefficient electric. London spoilt us for never being cold when at home.

So I started looking at gas heaters, the unflued portable kind, which come in around or under $1,000. Choice has a review of them and points out that they release CO and NOx, as well as water vapour, and the emissions can be bad for asthmatics (like Holly).

So I stepped up my thinking to a flued gas heater, to go in the fireplace in the lounge room. I didn't want one of these gas fire things that have the look of a real fire but don't actually do much int he way of heat. I want real heat, so I was looking at the nice fan-forced heaters. These start around $3,000 and go all the way up.

Now my parents have a brilliant ducted gas heating system in their house. It's lovely in every room in Winter. Prices for a small house like ours are apparently from $5,000, which was less than double what we were prepared to pay for the flued heating. You see how your mind steps up a notch without realising?

Anyway yesterday the quote came in for the ducted heating. $6270 including GST for a five-star efficient ducted system. We've ended up a long way from the grand or so I was originally thinking of. It forced something of a reality check.

If we spend a grand on a heater (actually should be a bit less) we can spend the rest on double glazing and upgrading our roof insulation. This has major additional benefits of Summer insulation and keeping out aircraft noise. To be completely serious, you only really need heating in a Sydney house for a month or two of the year. Nice to have for perhaps another month. Spending all that money for something used for a quarter of the year isn't sensible.

It's been an interesting journey, and has taught me that when you're looking at things you need to remember where you started. Go back to it and compare with the gold-plated option you're now contemplating.

Okay, now I miss London

Dave Cross just posted a link to the Programme for Opentech 2008 in July in London. While I've long missed all the awesome bands I've been missing in London, this is one of those events I really would love to go to.

There's really cool stuff like the stuff the mySociety guys going on over there. Hackers hacking government to make democracy work better.

I really enjoyed some of the random conferences I went to in London.

London Perl Workshop had really inspirational talks on people doing seriously awesome stuff in Perl.

Sadly defunct NTK put on a really impressive day called XCOM2002 showcasing people doing weird and cool shit with computers.

I'd love to start something like this here in Sydney. London, at the time, had NTK, which gave enormous amounts of publicity to really interesting geek stuff going on, which helped in getting the word out. Not sure there's the critical mass here, but there are certainly loads of people doing really interesting things.

Not sure how to get stuff going. I've certainly never made it to a Dorkbot here, so I'm as bad as everyone else.

Perhaps we need an NTK for Sydney? Who's up for starting one? I'd only be interested if there's some helpers. For geeks who didn't live in London between 1997 and 2006 (i.e., most of you) NTK (Need To Know) was a sarcastic weekly, purposely low-tech newsletter about what was happening in and around London. By and for geeks, particularly the charismatic Dave Green and Danny O'Brien. Wikipedia article.

Giant CRX City Pro: a year on

About a year ago, I blogged about my shiny new bike, a Giant CRX City Pro. I was very excited about the hub gears on it. A Mark Jones found my post and asked me about it, so I figure I should share my response for anyone else considering buying it.

Glad you asked because I wouldn't recommend it!

The bike itself, frame, wheels, everything but the gearing is brilliant. A mate bought the (somewhat cheaper) deraileur version and is wildly happy with it. It's a really zippy geometry, really wants to go.

The big problem is the Nexus internal hub. It's a real pain in the arse. I was won over by the idea of zero maintenance gearing, but that just hasn't panned out.

To fix a puncture, you need a spanner and end up covered with grease getting the wheel off and on. It takes ages, and you'll get it wrong the first three or four times you do it, causing further problems. Chain tensioning isn't exactly easy, either.

What's more, a couple of weeks ago one of the anti-rotation washers (the yellow one in this picture as described here by the late, great Sheldon Brown) had one of the lugs break off, which meant the axle rotates. Taking it into the shop tomorrow.

So while I was after a much reduced maintenance bike, it really hasn't turned out that way. I managed to seriously screw things up the first few times I had punctures, requiring shop visits to sort it out and show me the right way. What's more, you need to carry a spanner and end up covered in grease.

Longest ride I've been on? Dunno, not that far, maybe 50kms. It's my commuter bike, so it normally only does 10km a day. If you're thinking of touring with it, be aware that the lowest gear isn't all that low, so loaded up and going up mountains wouldn't be good.

If I were buying again, I'd buy the derailleur version of the bike. For the price and the quality of the bike, it's an amazing deal. I might spend the difference in price on a hub dynamo and light set.

Sun Lizard: any good?

Sun Lizard system diagram

We've been getting quotes for heating in our house, as it's starting to get cold. Initially we thought we'd go for a flued, fan-forced gas heater in the fireplace in the lounge room. A friend has the unflued gas heater recommended by Choice and it's brilliant. Heats her whole house really well. We figured flued because then the exhaust gases go outside.

Turns out gas heaters of this calibre, flued or unflued, are around $3,000 or more plus installation. Not cheap! So we decided to have a look at ducted heating, which if it comes in at under double that, I reckon isn't a bad deal since it would heat the whole house.

Now I've found The Sun Lizard which was featured on New Inventors. It uses heat from the sun to force warm air in or out of the house, depending on the season, and stores the heat in the thermal mass of the house. Given we're in a double-brick house, we've got plenty of thermal mass.

This claims to heat by 4-6° which sounds like it'd probably be enough most of the time for us. In addition, it cools by up to 10° in summer which would be a nice bonus. At under $3,000 it sounds like a nice option, and with no ongoing costs it's quite attractive.

But I'm not sure 4-6° is quite enough, even in Sydney's mild winters. I vowed when we bought a house to never spend another winter shivering with all my clothes on and a crappy electric heater sucking down expensive juice. This is the experience of poorly insulated, unheated rental properties for about a month a year in Sydney.

I wonder if the money we were thinking of spending on ducted heating might be better spent on a unit like this and upgrading our insulation. Get the roof vacuumed and the old insulation replaced with modern, high-spec insulation. As an added benefit, it would reduce plane noise. We're also looking into double glazing, which has benefits for both thermal and acoustic insulation. Perhaps with greatly-enhanced insulation and this unit, we could get by with a crappy electric heater used for only a few days a year?

So does anyone out there have any experience with this unit?

Malcolm Middleton: fantastic gig

Classy grafitti from the Hopetoun toilets

Holly and I went to see Malcolm Middleton, formerly of Arab Strap at the Hopetoun last night. Brilliant gig! As well as the miserable Scot, the two support bands were excellent, which is refreshing as "Special Guests" are often lousy.

First up were PapavsPretty, a bunch of 17 year olds with amazing talent. Their cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart was excellent, and kids playing a Yamaha DX7 that's older than them is quite amusing.

Second was Sui Zhen, a woman with a voice somewhat like the woman from Lamb. Delicate but playful songs. Quite enjoyed it.

In between sets we got talking to a couple of Belfast lads. Metal fan Mick of the cliched name looked a lot like Hank Von Helvete from Turbonegro, though I didn't point out that they're a Norwegian gay metal band.

Finally out came the miserable Scot. Brilliant, as always. He's a genius with an acoustic guitar, and the Prozac clearly isn't working.

The photo? From the dunnies at the Hopetoun. I was amused while I took a piss, anyway.

They do things differently in Tassie

Moonscape logging on my recent trip to Tassie

The government of Tasmania (that'd be the Lennon government, not Gunns in case you're confused) do things differently in Tasmania. They paid for a big DC power link from the island to the mainland, which was switched on just in the nick of time as Tasmania ran out of water to run its hydro dams. Apparently the link, built to export electricity to the mainland, has flowed almost exclusively in the other direction since it was built.

Anyway, when you're running cables it's very easy to stick a few fibres in the cable run, and that's what they did. Basslink includes a fibre connection to the mainland, which would be a boon to telecommunications services in the state. Currently the only active fibre is owned by the corporate gorilla Telstra, and as monopolies tend to do, they charge like there's no tomorrow. ISP Internode, which recently stopped selling residential ADSL2+ and 8 megabit ADSL1 plans, claims Telstra charges 6 times more for the Hobart-Melbourne route than they pay to ship data between Melbourne and the US.

This would, of course, all be solved if the fibre attached to Basslink were switched on. It's been sitting there since 2003, unused. Now it emerged that the company that Tasmania contracted to operate the fibre gets paid $2 million a year regardless of whether it's operating or not. So the company would need to guarantee at least $2 million in profit a year to do better than the alternative of letting the fibre sit on the bottom of the sea, dark.

This is the thing about privatisation which always ends up burning governments. The commercial world they're trying to entice holds all the cards, and has many other investment opportunities open to them. They have expensive and clever merchant bankers and lawyers, just waiting to negotiate the vendor (the government, that is, us) up against the wall. We see it time and again when previously "commercial in confidence" contracts between the private sector and governments are leaked or opened up: governments sell the family silver, but continue to take all the risks.

When negotiating these deals, the private sector always seems to manage to put in risk-avoiding clauses that leave the public sector carrying the can if it doesn't work out. With little risk, the private sector ends up just as bloated and inefficient (often even worse) as the public sector they replaced.

So if you're looking at the private sector to be more efficient, under the types of contracts that get signed, they're not. It costs more for private companies to raise money in the bond markets, so it's more expensive. And then they need a profit margin added on top. All up meaning it costs more, while tying the hands of governments for decades to come.

If you're a Tasmanian, check out Digital Tasmania and lobby your MPs to get this sorted. It's really very simple to fix. Just turn on the fibre!

Firefox 3 looking good

I thought I'd try out Firefox 3 for a bit. Part of my job is to stay up to date with the latest and greatest, and I was hoping the much-touted memory management enhancements would be a nice plus.

So far, I'm well impressed. AJAX- and JavaScript-heavy sites are vastly faster, so for example Gmail snaps open, Google Reader zips along. The CMS I use all day every day also flies. Most importantly, they really do seem to have plugged the memory leaks. By this time of day, I'd expect Firefox to be around 200 megs, having used a few AJAX sites quite heavily. Instead, it's around 115 megs with four tabs and two CMS windows open. It also seems to go down when you close tabs and windows, which is something that didn't happen before. It also remains quite zippy.

Haven't noticed any bugs or rendering weirdness yet, which is a good sign. Only problem so far is that Firebug isn't yet available. There's a version of it for Firefox 3, but it apparently has some issues. If I decide Firefox 3 is stable enough to use all the time, I'll try out the upgraded Firebug. Life without Firebug would be a much reduced life...