Saturday, December 31, 2005

Konkan Railway Bridge

Konkan Railway Bridge The Konkan Railway runs parallel to the coast of Goa and so has to cross numerous rivers.

Electronic Tourist Kiosk

Electronic Tourist Kiosk On the way to take a cruise on the river in Goa I noticed an electronic tourist information Kiosk. This is essentially a PC in a box with a touch sensitive screen. This is the second unit I have seen in Goa and neither was operating. This is much the same as in Australia, where these units are installed in a rush of enthusiasm and then are not maintained. Tourists usually don't know enough to be able to ask a question of the machine.

Tropical Resort in Goa

Tropical Resort in Goa Goa's main attraction for overseas tourists are sandy beaches and tropical resorts. The locals seem offended if you don't at least go and have a look. But the one I visited looked just like one in Samoa and Australia. But the view from the headland nearby at sunset was okay.

Cybercafes in Mapusa

web page on a screen in a Cybercafe in Mapusa, IndiaGetting Internet access proved more difficult in India than I expected. The village has a pulse dial telephone system which I was unable to get to work reliably with my PC. The GSM mobile phone signals don't travel well through the 500 mm thick iron stone walls and steel barred windows of the houses. So far I have not been able to configure the GPRS of my phone with the local system. So I had to visit one of the numerous and cheap cybercafes.

Avoiding the more expensive tourist enters near the beach, the market town of Mapusa has old inexpensive ones. The catch is the low speed (about 1.2 kilobytes per second). The service is good, with staff able to supply blank CD-ROMs and a burner equipped PC. My web page looked okay on the slightly fuzzy 12 inch CRT screen.
Cybercafe in MapusaIn the photo, note the cybercamera, Dlink router and a bell (for summoning assistance) on top of the screen. I was able to plug my laptop into a spare port on the router, but this was so slow as to not be worth the effort.

An alternative for householders is that TaTa (a conglomerate which builds trucks as well) provide a CDMA fixed wireless service. The householder gets an LG made desk phone (LG LSP-350) which has a antenna on the back. They can connect a PC using a serial port or USB at up to 153.6 kbps. The handset also has a battery for power failures and SMS facilities. There are also GSM desktop units available which can be plugged into a standard phone handset.

Indian Navy Information Warfare Squadron

Information Warfare Squadron insgnia
Visiting the Kala Academy is entertaining in itself. This is a large modern performing arts complex. A traditional Indian performance was taking place in another amphitheater, while the naval band was performing in the indoor auditorium. There was a line of life preservers outside with the insignia of the various naval units on them, including the Information Warfare Squadron. The Indian Navy's Information Warfare squadron ("INAS 310 "Cobras") operate Dornier Do-228 aircraft, made locally under licence, for maritime and electronic surveillance.

Kator Re Bhaji: Through Corridors of Power

Play about Abbe Faria
"The Goan Jose Custodio Faria (1756-1819), more known as Abbe Faria, is an enigmatic personality around whom many stories and legends have been woven. He is best known for having studied the human mind and the trance state, disproving the 'animal magnetism' theories' of the then famous Austrian scientist Franz Anton Mesmer. He traveled to Portugal, Rome and France, and lived and worked in the exciting times of the Pinto Conspiracy, in Goa, and
the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in Europe. His life is layered with many stories some of which are captured in the play Kator Re Bhaji."

From the program for the Festival of Visual Arts and Theater, Kala Academy, Goa, 14 to 15 December 2005.

I attended the play Kator Re Bhaji (or Through Corridors of Power) by Isabel De Santa Rita Vas at the Kala Academy in Panjim, Goa, India. There is a statue of Abbe Faria in a park in town, down the road from the theater.

This was an outdoor performance overlooking the beach. The performance was reminiscent of one at the New Theater in Newtown Sydney, with a strong political and social message, surreal aspects with a play within a play, music and perhaps too clever philosophizing by the playwright. But I like any play about the life of a scientist, and it was fascinating to discover the history of one of the locals who took part in the French Revolution.

Indian office in Panjim

Indian office in Panjim Here is a travel office in the capital city of Goa. Note the Motorola walkie-talkie radio, phone, computer, printer and air conditioning. Also note a calculator and pile of ledger books on the table. What you can't see is the uninteruptable power supply on the floor behind to keep the computer and phone running during power failures.

School of Art, Panjim

School of Art Panjim
printmaking workshop  School of Art in Panjim
Visited the printmaking workshop at the School of Art in Panjim, India, courtesy of Hanuman Kambli. The modern building was designed by Sarto Aluicida. The art studios have impressive use of natural light, with celistory windows and mezzanine floors filtering the daylight. But ldings in Canberra, it needs some work to stop the raike modern buildings in Canberra, it needs some work to stop the rain coming in. Some translucent sails over the light-wells would help.

Ferry Cross the Mandovi River

Ferry  crossing the Mandovi River to Panji (Panjim), Goa, India. The numerous rivers of Goa are serviced by ferries. This one is crossing the Mandovi River to Panji (Panjim), Goa, India.Mandovi River to Panji (Panjim) the capital city of Goa in India. The ferry is free for pedestrians with scooter paying. Cars are not carried as there are two road bridges nearby. The only time you hear of Indian ferries in the western press is when the sink, with great loss of life. But this one felt quite safe, with a crowd of workers going home, schoolkids and young people out for a night on the town.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Indian School

Arriving late for the end of year celebrations at Lourdes Convent School, I found myself directed to a seat next to the Mother Superior. She explained that all 1,000 of the students were taking part. There were formation dancers depicting traditional fishing and tilling of fields, a morality play featuring the devil (he got the best lines as usual) and a bollywood style dance spectacular, as well as the usual prize giving. Tea in the headmistress office afterwards was a little daunting, bring back memories of being sent to the head for punishment. After the ceremonies, the kids changed out of their costumes and became kids, running around and jostling for ice cream, before being driven home, three people to a scooter, or in a minicar.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Miller, Baker, IT Engineer

The Goan village in India has tradespeople for traditional services, such as the miller. He will mill your own rice, wheat or millet, or sell you some and then grind it. But their son is more than likely training to do web design or engineering. There are also welders and small "two wheel" garages specializing in fixing motor scooter.

Village Bike

I found this marvelous bicycle outside the village boy's club in Goa, India. Notice the "A" badge on the front mudguard, the mechanically linked front brakes and the red blades in the spokes.

Shell Windows

The traditional windows of village houses of Goa are made of translucent oyster shell in a wooden lattice. This provides a soft translucent light for the houses. More recent windows have a small pane of clear glass in the centre, surrounded by shells. Some widows are of stained glass.

Life in the Lanes

In the lane-ways of a Goan village in India you will find people on foot, on bicycle and the occasional scooter. Cars and trucks are confined to wider roads at the end of the labyrinth. There are also women drying grain and kids playing cricket.

Goan Front and Back Doors

The balcao (porch) at the front of many houses in Goa (India) have a concrete seat built into the railing on each side of the top step. This is a cool place to sit and chat to the passers by. There are people with basket and bicycle loads of bread, fish and other goods, but business is done at the kitchen door.

Goan Village

Goan villages in India have densely packed houses separated by alleyways, surrounded by fields. Alleyways wide enough for a bullock cart separate the houses, lough a motor scooter is much more common than a bullock.

Older houses are of laterite, a rough rust-red stone. This must be protected from the rain by traditional palm frond screens, or now a layer of concrete and plastic roller blinds. Shops and some newer houses are of reinforced concrete, with the second story left open for grain storage. The laterite stone is incorporated for decoration in large municipal buildings.

Houses have wells, but also a piped municipal water supply. Each house has a roof tank for continuity of supply (incorporated as an architectural feature of apartments in town). There are street lights and mains power to the houses (power goes off for a few minutes several times a day).

Konkan Railway

The Konkan Railway runs the length of Goa in India, connecting it to Mumbai to the north and Mangalore to the south. The line has to cross numerous rivers and floodplains. This is a very modern construction, but notice the old oil lamp on the post next to the road crossing in the photo.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Rice Fields and Stone Churches

The villages of Goa in India are surrounded by rice fields. These are flood irrigated. During the dry season, houses, shops and churches are repaired. The laterite stone is covered with a new layer of whitewash, or in the case of this church, concrete. You can see how the fine detail of the column fluting is molded in the concrete coating.


In amongst three wheeled taxis and old busses, the city of Madgaon (Marga) in India, has a brand new high-tech suspended monorail, the "Konkan Railway Skybus", on high concrete pilons. The photo shows two monorail cars at the station. The story I got from a taxi driver was that one of the engineers was killed on a test run and the train has not run since. This shows that while India is full of competent engineers and astute business people they are not immune from folly. There are very few successful monorails in the world, such as the Schwebebahn at Wuppertal. A conventional train running on an elevated track, such as the Brisbane Airport Airtrain, would be far more useful as a transport system. But then Sydney has its own failed monorail.

Southern India

Having survived three airline flights and about ten hours in transit (total of about 20 hours) I arrived in Bangalore, India. The first impression was of military jet aircraft at the airport (shared with colluvial traffic like Townsville and Darwin airports in Australia). Each airliner on the ground had a guard with an automatic rifle. There seems to be building work going on everywhere. Bangalore from the air is one large construction site, with suburbs of apartments springing up. Stepping out of the Airport at Goa, I found my GSM phone worked. Like Beijing India has the contrast of people on old bicycles operating the latest mobile phones. Friday markets in Mapusa (see photo) has traditional food and clothing, dealated power and phone cabling, but also phones, electronics and cybercafes.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

On Target

John Birmingham described his book "Designated Targets" as an airport novel. So he should be delighted it is on the shelf beside his earlier book "He Died With a Falafel in His Hand" in the newsagent inside the international transit lounge at Sydney airport. There were also a pile outside the newsagent.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The other side of the creek

This morning I was checking my mail when I noticed an invitation to a Fibreculture meeting at University of Sydney on Wednesday.

fibreculture is about critical and speculative interventions in the debate and discussions concerning information technology, the policy that concerns it, the new media for(u)ms it supports and its sustainable deployment towards a more equitable Australia. fibreculture is a forum for the exchange of articles, ideas and arguments on Australian IT policy in a broad, cultural context. ...
On the agenda was:

  • Help define fibreculture's role in the proposed new peak body: Digital Humanities Australia and Oceania
  • Propose ways to make best use of fibreculture's new online infrastructures, including MediaWiki and the Joomla web content management system
  • Help liven up the lists (and give feedback on moderation policies)
  • Play a role in proposed publication projects: fibreculture print-on-demand book series; collaborations with other publications (ephemera); upcoming editions of fibreculture journal
  • Help with fibreculture's possible involvement in an ANAT event on alternate modes of publishing proposed for March (~ Adelaide Festival)
  • Conferences: ADHO Paris, AIOR Brisbane, IE2006 Perth?
It was Wednesday, I was not far from the University so I jumped on a bus and was there ten minutes later.

I find involvement with fibreculture an intensely frustrating but rewarding experience. Fibreculturalists are humanities people who use the Internet. So they talk English and use IT terms, but I still can't understand what they are talking about. Even when I can understand what they are saying I don't know why they are saying it. This is because they speak in humanities-speak and I talk IT geek.

I could get the Wiki to give me the agenda and was late, so was even a little more confused that usual. So here I can say things I wanted to say:

Digital Humanities Australia and Oceania:

Lets provide something useful. As an example, I ran a workshop on the web for South Pacific museums in Samoa a few months ago for the International Council of Museums and UNESCO.

This went okay, but the smaller museums do not have the resources to run their own web sites. So I had an ANU student do a project on how to build a semantic web based system for all the museums of the region.

Propose ways to make best use of fibreculture's new online

When you work that out tell the rest of us. Better still if you can't work it out tell us what the problem is and we can get the IT researchers to work on solving it. There is a lot of money for doing research into online publishing, but little idea on what problems need to be solved.

Help liven up the lists:

Put Google ads on the web site. This will provide enough income to pay the hosting cost of the site. It will also provide lots of entertaining controversy. Each time someone complains there should not be ads about something, the system will see that topic and put up ads about it, further fuleeing the argument. ;-)

Play a role in proposed publication projects:
Firberculture could play a role in working out how to do books online without using some sort of Stalinist five year plan approach. How do a group of lossely associated people collaborate on a book? Can you translate a list/blog/Wiki into a book?

At present the Print On Demand services seem to say that once you have produced the book using old fashioned writing and editing processes if you email them the typeset PDF they will print and distribute it. This seems to only address a small part of the process.

If Australian humanities types want the sort of money the e-science people get, they need to come up with projects which sound hi-tech and have a chance of being of economic assistance to the nation. One would be to work out how to do book publishing in Australia, by an adaption of POD. This could be an offshoot of initiatives such as the Australian Partnership for Sustainable Repositories.

That may sound difficult, but a few years ago the Australian Computer Society decided to offer conference proceedings publishing service for Australian IT conferences.

As a result many conferences which would otherwise publish and print their proceedings in the USA are now doing it in Australia. Other conferences which could not afford to publish can now publish. There are now about 50 volumes of proceedings, which are also provided free online.

But there is still much to do with much of the process lacking IT support. Roger Clark pointed out that much of the cost with publishing academic papers is in preparing the content so even a paper-less journal costs money.

The ACS sponsored some work by ANU students to provide some tools for electronic publishing . Some of this may have fed into ARC work.

The Integrated Content Environment (ICE) System from USQ,

is an example of the same ideas applied to educational content. Perhaps Fibreculture can help make sense of all this technology, so we can seamlessly move from a discussion, to research to teaching to publishing.

Conferences: ADHO Paris, AIOR Brisbane, IE2006 Perth

Perhaps Fibreculture can stop these conferences being a closed shop with just people talking to the people they usually talk to.

The meeting made excellent use of technology with the agenda on screen along with some remote participants on audio and video conference. Due to technology limitations we could have only one remote participant at a time. Perhaps Fibreculture should borrow the few dozen Access Grid nodes around Australia for an event. These are lavishly equipped video conference rooms with wall sized high definition screens, hifi sound and gigabit connections. The rooms were bought for big science projects (The Grid), but should be co-opted for the humanities.

It was fun sitting in a room lined with dusty books discussing Moodle Wiki PODs. ;-)

ps: The title "The Other Side of the Creek" refers to the situation at the ANU, where Sullivan's Creek divides the campus. The humanities are on the eastern bank of the creek and the hard sciences on the west bank.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Lilly Pilly Home Brew

Inspired by a trip to Brussels, I made some Belgian style fruit drink using Lilly Pilly. Syzygium oleosum (LillyPilly) is an Australian native tree with cherry-like white to red fruit. They grow in and around Sydney (I picked mine from the streets of the inner west). The result has a sightly pinkish color and tastes a bit like cider, with a slightly rotten apple smell. Details at: <>.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Use US Standard for Accessible Electronic Textbooks?

The "Open eBook Publication Structure" 1.2 (OEBPS) is an XHTML based format for electronic books. OEBPS is recommended by the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard Report, for accessible electronic textbooks in US schools. As this was sponsored by the U. S. Department of Education it is likely to receive interest from publishers, educators and government.

OEBPS is conceptually similar to the format used by OpenOffice.Org (OOO) in that it consists of a Zipped folder containing an XML manifest file, content in XML and images in binary format. Unlike OOO, the content is in XHTML and could be displayed by a web browser. But there doesn't seem to be any specific software for creating OEBPS documents. Perhaps web based editing tools could be used for this, such as Writely the web based word processor.

The XHTML subset which OEBPS uses is similar to the XHTML Basic used for mobile phones to display web content. This is a cleaner, leaner HTML. I teach university students how to create content in this format which works on regular desktop PCs, mobile phones and can be translated into other languages.

OEBPS might be a good format for text books to accompany an online course. It should be possible to refer a student to read some content in such a book from within an online learning system like Moodle or Sakai. As I show to students, it is possible to build a presentation right into the document format, so there is no need for separate teacher's materials.

What I can't work out if there is standard markup defined in OEBPS for regular book structures, such as entries for the index in the back of the book.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Building Supercomputers in Australia

Went along to part of the Australian Undergraduate Students' Computing Conference this week. That may sound deadly dull, academic and far removed from the real world, but it wasn't. One presentation was from a company which builds supercomputers in Canberra and another on how to secure e-commerce transactions.

Richard Alexander is an entertaining speaker. He is the CEO & Founder of Alexander Technology, a Canberra startup selling supercomputers. Richard got into this business by selling the ANU computer science department the components for their award winning "Bunyip" super computer.

Their strategy is initially to sell to researchers. Buying a supercomputer costing millions of dollars is a big decision for a researcher, but instead they can buy one from Alexander for a few hundred thousand. The business case is that such a computer can make a ten fold increase in research productivity, as measured by the number of research papers produced. More computer power means more numbers crunched and more results which can be written up.

Richard estimates the market for such computers in Australia as only being a few hundred. But the same computer architecture can be used for commercial applications requiring lots of processing, opening up a larger business and government market. Richard sees the hardware becoming a commodity and the money to be made from software and services.

I first heard of the Bunyip when sitting in the common room at ANU and overhearing two colleagues going through the specifications for building the system. When I heard they were building their own supercomputer I thought they were crazy. When I saw the completed unit, I still thought they were crazy. It looks like a whole lot of cheap PC boxes stacked on old library shelves. This is because it is a whole lot of cheap PC boxes stacked on old library shelves. But the clever part is in the way they are networked and programmed.

Alexander Technology are past the PC box stage and are now using rack mounted PC cards in more elegant looking cases. But the principle of using lots of low cost processors connected with the fastest affordable network remains.

I have suggested to the Chinese Government that they could fill warehouses with such supercomputers to run their country, the US government they could load them on a high speed ship for military operations. The Australian military could load one into their new Wedgetail mini-Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft to turn it into a airborne command post for relief operations.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Three pages the fundamental size for information?

Recently I read the O'Reilly Google Hacks book. It suggests a successful web site should have at least 100 content pages, with each page of 5 to 15kbytes, with a minimum of images. It occurred to me that such a web site is about the same size as the average book, divided up into three printed page sections. Perhaps this is not a coincidence and represents a useful unit of information for people to use.

If you have 100 web pages each of 10kbytes that is 1,000 kbytes. Assuming one quarter of the web page is formatting, that leaves 750 kbytes of text. I did a quick survey of a couple of books within reach and found they were about 300 pages long with about 2500 characters per page, or about 750 kbytes of text in total. That doesn't sound very scientific, so I did a search and found a report from University of California saying the average book has 300 pages and .75 Mbytes of plain text equivalent.

That the average book is the same as the minimum size for a web site should not be a surprise. Both books and web pages are designed to be read by people and so people set the limit on size (
just as the size of a business card is not set by printing technology but by the size of a human hand).

Previously I have done web based books with one web page per chapter. This was easy to maintain, but
a whole chapter on one web page seemed a bit long for the reader. I got some complaints from readers and more recently noticed Google AdWords had difficulty working out what these chapters were about so it could put relevant ads on them.

Following Google Hacks' advice, the amount of information in the average web site should be divided into 100 pieces, each
the equivalent of 3 printed pages. My quick survey found about ten chapters in the average book, so each chapter would be made up of ten sections, for a total of 30 pages per chapter.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Computers for Trains

Thursday I went along to the exhibition for AusRail 2005, This is convention for the Australian rail industry. There were quite a few computer related exhibits, combining my hobby interest in trains with a professional interest in IT for large systems.

The photo shows me driving a locomotive simulator from Corys. This is used for training locomotive drivers, in much the same way aircraft simulators are used for pilots. There wasn't a full mockup of a locomotive cab, but even with a set of controls and a PC screen it was very realistic.

Ansaldo Signal had a live feed from the Train Control System they have installed in Perth. This used five LCD screen to show where each train was on the Perth network.

Motorola's demonstrated their Mobile Mesh Network Technology to transmit security video from a train. The idea with a mesh network is that any unit can be used to relay signals, removing the need for expensive base stations. The hardware used is much the same as for WiFi.

Lockheed Martin showed an Advanced Train Management System to be based on Telstra's CDMA network. This seemed odd as only a few days ago Telstra announced they were phasing out CDMA.

Last year I suggested to the NSW transport minister that some of these gadgets could be useful in accidents.

Running an organization online: The Australian Computer Society

Greetings from the national council of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). The ACS holds two meetings a year of its peak body. Being a computer organization it is not surprising the ACS has worked to adapt computers for the meetings. Only standard hardware and software is used, but adapted for working in a live meeting.

As Director of Communications Technologies for the ACS I have a particular interest in the way it uses IT to make decisions and run the organization. There isn't much point in the organisation trying to sort out public policy on things like metropolitan boadband blackspots if it can't use the technology itself.

There are about 30 people in a meeting room in Sydney sitting around a U shaped table (see photo). At the open end of the U is a projection screen with the agenda on it.

Most people have a laptop computer in front of the them, linked by WiFi. The agenda and papers are provided electronically on a secure web site. The agenda is a HTML web page, with the agenda papers linked to this. The agenda papers are mostly word processing documents and presentations.

When someone wants to make a presentation they can stay where they sit and be passed a wireless microphone and a video cable for their laptop. Most times prepared presentations are given. Sometimes after discussion proposals are modified live on the screen using a word processor. This was everyone can follow the details of what changes are being made.

Much of the time the attendees are intent reading and typing at their laptops. This can be a bit disconcerting if you are giving a presentation and the audience doesn't appear to be paying attention. But often the audience is actively working on what you are talking about, reading ahead in the presentation, searching and preparing counter proposals.

On occasions we have tried things like compute mediated brainstorming systems, such as the Grouputer. But mostly it is just ordinary computer hardware and software used.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Making Standards Like Open Source

Friday morning I attended the Annual General Meeting of Standards Australia in Canberra. I represent Australian Computer Society on Standards Australia's Council. Open Source programmers think they invented the idea of people getting together to develop technology and then giving the results away. But standards makers have been doing it for a hundred years. Companies which fiercely compete in the market and countries at war still get their experts together and agree standards to help the world operate efficiently. Like Open Source they results of this work are made freely available.

For those who don't know, Standards Australia is a non profit non-government organization with volunteer members. The standards developed have no legal force, but are often adopted by governments. Even standards not backed by law have a lot of moral force. SA works with other national and international standards bodies. The Australian Computer Society is one of the members of Standards Australia, along with engineers architects and other professional bodies.

Standards Australia and its sister organizations around the world just look after the administrative side of standards development. The actual work of drafting standards is done by expert volunteers sent by their companies, government agencies and universities. The experts are supposed to leave their organization affiliations at the door, to do a standard for the common good and mostly this happens.

Standards development is at an interesting transition time. Global standards are much in vogue to foster international trade. The Internet is forcing changes in the ways standards are created and distributed.

Standards Australia floated its commercial publications operation on the Australian stock market as SAI Global Limited. Stanndards Australia still makes the standards but SA Global sells them.

Standards Australia have sponsored a history "Engine of Change: Standards Australia since 1922: by Winton Higgins. SA are giving away the book and if you ask Ariella Mitchell she might give you a copy. Like the history ACS published some time ago it is not exactly a riveting read, but a useful scholarly work. Higgins is a Research Fellow at UTS and there is a paper from him on the same topic. But his research is flawed in one part of the book claiming OSI communications standards somehow fostered the Internet. In fact OSI and the Internet were bitter rivals. Internet standards were, and still are, made outside the international standards process which Standards Australia is a part of.

IT people are used to making standards online and standards bodies are having to come to grips with providing tools for doing this. Standards Australia has
Consensus Builder as an online web based tool for helping committees to do their work. But most committees still involve face to face meetings and mountains of paperwork.

Standards NZ were at the SA meeting in Canberra. SANZ is a government body, but works much the same as Standards Australia and works on jopint AU/NZ standrads. Standards NZ have brought in a system for selling standards online, mostly by subscription. Perhaps it would be cheaper to get Australian standards via SA NZ? ;-)

Some changes were made to SA's structure at the meeting to streamline the processes. These came from a report from consultants Cameron Ralph. There was much humor over this as the report is still marked "confidential", despite being on the web.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is the $100 Laptop a Windup?

A $100 laptop computer designed for education in the developing world was displayed to the media by Nicholas Negroponte from MIT and the Secretary-General of the UN last week. The colorful hand cranked little computer looked very attractive in the TV news, but is not a reality just yet. It may never be a reality and even if these computers are made and actually work, they may not necessarily be a good idea.

The $100 laptop is an MIT Media Lab project:
The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data. This rugged laptop will be WiFi-enabled and have USB ports galore. Its current specifications are: 500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel.
As the Media Lab points out the laptop is not yet in production and will not be available for sale, but distributed to schools under government supervision.

The Secretary-General talked at the media event, but this isn't a UN project. If you look at what he actually said, he wasn't endorsing the details of this project, but the idea of economic and social development by improving learning.

I have a few reservations about the $100 Laptop:
  1. It isn't really a laptop.
  2. It is too expensive and there are better things to do with the money.
  3. There are better things to do with the technology
  4. The developing world has already designed and built better computers.
It isn't really isn't a laptop

A $100 Laptop is difficult to make and would be a major achievement, if it was true. But the $100 Laptop is really a PDA with a larger screen and a keyboard. That is not as difficult to make and such devices have been made for many years.

If you look carefully at photos of the unit being held in the hand, it is much smaller than a laptop computer. The processor and memory specifications of the unit are lower than those of a laptop and closer to those of a PDA. The computer would be better described as a subnotebook or palmtop computer. This is a size which would suit a child and many such devices have been made and sold for educational and other purposes.

It is too expensive and there are better things to do with the money

At $100 the computer will still be too expensive for many in developing countries and they could find better uses if offered the money. Even if basic needs for food and shelter are met and money can be spent on computers, there may be more realistic priorities than one per child. One computer per school or village, might be a more realistic and useful goal.

There are better things to do with the technology

Computer can be used to help with agriculture, business, civil administration, disaster management and defence, as well as education. A large scale humanitarian operation is underway in areas of Pakistan affected by earthquake. Providing children who have no shelter with laptop computers is not a priority. However, some small computers would be useful in coordinating relief operations. Recently I tested a new version of the Sahana Open Source Disaster Management System for a handheld computer.

The developing world has already designed and built better computers.

MIT's $100 Laptop does not actually exist, it is just an idea. In contrast the Simputer exists. This is an Indian designed PDA for developing countries. The Simputer uses an innovative open source hardware and software approach. A non-profit organization designed the computer and then licensed it to manufacturers. The computer runs Linux open source software, as the $100 Laptop proposes to do. Unlike the $100 Laptop, the Simputer is a commercial product and the customer can choose to buy it or spend the money on something else.

The Simputer is not perfect and doesn't seem to have been a great sales success. Perhaps the Simputer's largest problem has been in marketing it as a PDA. In comparison with conventional PDAs the Simputer looks large, cumbersome and dull. Also the Simputer lacks a keyboard. Another Indian made computer is the Mobilis. This is essentially a Simputer with a larger screen and a small rugged rubber keyboard. It is similar in concept to the $100 Laptop, but closer to reality.

Combine First World Marketing Hype with Developing Nations' IT Expertise

The best features of the proposed $100 Laptop could be combined with those of proven computers from developing nations, to produce a real computer for education.

The strength of the $100 Laptop is in its colorful case mimicking a laptop and the powerful marketing ability of the MIT Media Lab. The weakness is in the lack of practical and proven design. At the media event the charging handle of the supposed rugged $100 computer came off in the hands of the Secretary General.

The Simputer has a design tested in use and in the market. It suffers from honesty, in describing itself as a PDA and in having a simple case which looks dull. It also suffers from having to be made from components which are available now at the price they cost now.

Taking the best of both worlds a better computer for the developing world could be designed. This would have the marketing and backing of the $100 computer, with the practicality of real low cost computers designed in the developing world.

The result might be a computer with the internals of the Simputer and the colorful case of the MIT design (see my drawing). Unlike the MIT design, the unit would not have the charger built in and would have a rugged rubber keyboard. A separate hand cranked charger like the Freeplay unit could be used, or the new Freeplay foot powered "Weza" portable energy source shared by a school. The units would be available for sale, as well as humanitarian use (mine is shown running Sahana for a relief operation).

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Open source disaster management system on a PDA

Version 2 of the Sahana open source disaster management system was released for testing last week. See my quick check of the user interface. This includes screen shots on a mobile phone and PDA and in several languages including Chinese.

Version 1 of Sahana was developed in a hurry for the Asian tsunami and is to be pressed into service for the Pakistan earthquake. Earlier in the year I suggested changing the web interface so it would be more efficient in the field, could run on hand held devices and the interface could be machine translated into other languages. Not everything has been implemented yet, but enough to show it is possible.

ps: In the middle of the redesign of Sahana, Hurricane Katrina struck the USA, with reports of problems with coordination efforts. We discussed if the third world needed to lend its technical expertise to the USA. But the experience of trying to help fix web based systems during the Canberra bush-fires,
suggested there was little chance of the help being accepted.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Tsunami warning on my mobile phone

At 10:30 am today I got this SMS message on my mobile phone:

ISSUED AT 2312Z 14 NOV 2005 THIS
This is from my own do-it-yourself Tsunami warning system. UNESCO forward warnings for the Pacific and Indian Oceans by email. I have set my email system to forward a summary of the messages to my mobile phone by SMS.

This is one of the low cost Internet based emergency technologies I have suggested East Timor government use.

The system isn't perfect. The message took 18 minutes to get to me. It only took about two minutes to get through the email system and 30 seconds for the SMS to the phone. Where the other 15 and a half minutes delay was I am not sure.

Here is what the original warning looked like:

ISSUED AT 2312Z 14 NOV 2005





ORIGIN TIME - 2139Z 14 NOV 2005


------------------- ----- ------ ----- ------ -----
OFUNATO HONSHU 39.0N 141.8E 2228Z 0.16M 04MIN







Sunday, November 13, 2005

John Birmingham says ebooks sell

I wrote November 13, 2005:
... John Birmingham, author of "He Died with a Falafel in His Hand" , and more recently "Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1" and "Designated Targets: World War 2.2" is speaking at the National Library of Australia, in Canberra at 2pm Sunday. ...
Greetings, live via wireless Internet, from the reading room of the National Library of Australia. John Birmingham gave an entertaining and very generous talk to the friends of the library. He talked about his background, including working on security vetting at the Defence Department as well as work as a journalist. He mentioned how a few people had objected to being mentioned in the Falafel book but many more people had claimed to be in it.

At question time I asked about the electronic editions of his books. John said that they sold well in the USA, but not in Australia. Colin Steele asked a follow up question about e-books. Colin is the former Librarian at the Australian National University and ANU Emeritus Fellow, who I regularly bump into at e-publishing seminars.

What I didn't know was Colin is also a character in John Birmingham's latest book. John explained that he acknowledges people by naming characters in the books after them and gets revenge on bad reviewers in the same way. As I have written a good review, look out for Tom Worthington in charge of the USS Stradbroke Island in the next book. ;-)

ps: The NLA is giving away free wireless Internet access in the reading room (at about 256 kbps). I signed up ten minutes before John's talk. This requires first signing up as a reader and then being issued with a password. It was a lot quicker and easier than when I signed up as a reader with the British Library in London a few years ago. The catering at NLA is much better than at BL as well. ;-)

Author of Choice: John Birmingham

John Birmingham, author of "He Died with a Falafel in His Hand" , and more recently "Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1" and "Designated Targets: World War 2.2" is speaking at the National Library of Australia, in Canberra at 2pm Sunday.

I will be going along, having enjoyed Mr. Birmingham books and felt part of them.

In "He Died with a Falafel in His Hand" and the less successful sequel "The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco" John Birmingham describes life in group houses in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. Reading "Falafel" was a painful experience because I laughed so much my sides hurt. It was disconcerting because some of the stories sounded very familar.

"Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1" and the sequel "Designated Targets: World War 2.2" are science fiction about a 21st century US and Australian Navy task force going back in time and fighting world war two again. Birmingham provides an action adventure in the style of Tom Clancy, with lots of gadgets guns and heroes, but slightly less of a US centric world view. There is some humor, for example one of the warships is a supercarrier named after President Clinton; but it is Hillary, not Bill.

Some years ago I lived in a group house in Canberra, which had been previously occupied by a coven of witches and real estate scammers. So some of the very funny parts of Birmingham's Falafel book sounded familiar. We had visits from the police and a geriatric private detective looking for the previous tenants (some associates of a former Deputy Prime Minister). The neighbors talked of the previous occupant sending flaming arrows over the fence during backyard rituals. I wrote about it in on-line spoof called "Canberra Group House and Garden". The neighbors were interviewed about this by Time Magazine for a special edition on cyberspace.

One of the weapons John Birmingham speculates about in
"Weapons of Choice" is an Australia high speed catamaran HMAS Moreton Bay. This appears to be inspired by the real Australian made high speed catamaran HMAS Jervis Bay, which transported troops to East Timor.

During the Olympic Games I ended up being briefly left in charge of one of these high speed catamarans
, alone on the bridge. The ship was being used as a floating convention center for the games and being marketed to visiting US military. It was not at sea at the time, but tied up alongside at Darling Harbor in Sydney. Even so there were hundreds of dials and switches in front of me. Something started beeping and flashing and as I was about to panic the ship was on fire, someone came in said "its just the the sewage tank needs emptying" and left again.

While working for defence I had a slightly surreal day on a US flagship
in a borrowed uniform during a joint exercise. The greatest danger I faced was seasickness after a meal in the officer's mess. There was a great assortment of people from different armed services, plus civilian scientists and even telephone salesmen on board. This makes Birmingham's description of a multinational task force seem more real. One aspect which is not portrayed well in literature is how ordinary and low tech lot of the equipment is and how mundane and boring a lot of the day is.

Some years later I stumbled across one of the high speed catamarans, just competed for the US Army in Hobart. It was about to make a high speed dash to the gulf war. I wrote a web report on this and people aboard the ship send me photos and reports of their travels.
It looks like John Birmingham is wrong in one aspect of his future history. The Australian Navy is not buying these new Australian designed ships, the US military is. Australia continues to buy older technology imported ship designs.

Some of John Birmingham's books are available,
including "Designated Targets", in electronic format. These are around the same price as the paperback editions and I wonder if may are sold.

As they have the full text of "Weapons of Choice", Amazon provide some interesting statistics. The Concordance has the one hundred most common words in the book in alphabetical order, which reads like Haiku poetry:

admiral again american another asked away big birmingham black brasch came captain chief choice clinton come commander day deck down enough even eyes face felt few fire first force get going good got guys halabi hand head hidaka himself hours hundred japanese john jones knew know kolhammer last let lieutenant light little long look looked man men might minutes moertopo moment need new nothing now officer old own right room screen second see seemed ship sir small something sort spruance still take tell thing think though thought thousand three time took turned two voice war weapons without women world yamamoto

The Readability indexes indicate it is an easy read (9.8 on the Fog index) and it is a bargain at 16,122 Words per Dollar.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Smarter Small Car?

After the Sydney International Motor Show I thought I would make my own contribution to car design: cut about 1 m out of a small car, such as a Diahatsu Cuore. This would make a two seater car, about the same length as the Mercedes Benz ForTwo Smart Car.

I saw one of the tiny Mercedes at a tiny petrol station in Brussels and another made up as a micro NSW Police car outside the central railway station in Sydney. These are at home in the inner city.
Two of these small cars would fit into the one parking space of my "Smart Apartment" for a Euro lifestyle.

But the Smart Car is equipped with exotic technology and construction techniques which raise the price. The same result could be achieved by shortening a more conventional small car: just cut out the back seat.
The Mercedes is called a "ForTwo" so mine is the "2Cheap". ;-)

As an example of real car hacking, Shaun Williams
replaced the petrol engine in a Toyota Echo (Yaris) car and with an Electric one.

Friday, November 04, 2005

IT in Government Conference

Tom Worthington having iris scanned

Greetings from the IT in Government conference in Canberra. One of the gadgets on display is an iris recognition system for security applications. I put my face about 30 cm from what looks like a digital camera and the system scanned the iris of my eye using a infrared.

But as well as the toys, the conference has serious sessions with Chief Information Officers (CIOs) of government agencies and industry speakers. One item in my "live" report from last year's conference, which has been in the news recently is Customs Cargo Management:

... Customs are rebuilding systems conceived in the 1960s to integrate industry and customs. At this point a theme in the day became apparent: defence, immigration and customs all have real time, sensitive systems which have to link internationally and interface securely with other organizations. The new customs system received press criticism but worked well in practice. The key issue was not the software development, but helping clients with implementing digital certificates to use the system. The system receives 85,000 incoming messages and sends 200,000 outbound per day. It uses SMTP e-mail protocol for simplicity. The system is more than 23,000 Function points in size. ...
See: "Ebusiness, Egovernment, Exports: Implementing The Customs Cargo Management Reengineering System" at:
Presentations from this year's conference will be online tomorrow at the conference web site.

Edward Mandla, ACS President opened this year's conference with entertaining stories about a recent Australian IT delegation to India. He argued that "left brain" routine administrative processes will increasingly be moved (out-sourced and off-shored) to India and China. This will include most legal and accounting jobs. He argued Australia can compete with "right brained" creative jobs, including IT ones.

Jonathan Palmer, CIO of the Australian Bureau of Statistics talked about recent work on inter-operability in government. A draft "Information Interoperability Framework" has been prepared and should be public early next year. Work is underway on security and archiving of email. He showed us the National Data Network. I previously attended a demonstration of the NDN at the ABS.

Graham Fry, CIO of Attorney Generals talked about the diverse work of the department. Apart from high profile national security issues, AGs also looks after copyright. Still to come are the CIOs of Immigration, CSIRO and the Commonwealth Government. Presentation notes may be made available later by the ACS, but you really needed to be here. ;-)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Marion Mahony Griffin

Griffin incinerators in Glebe?Last night attending a talk by Christopher Vernon, one of the authors of the new book "Marion Mahony Griffin : Drawing the Form of Nature"

Marion Mahony Griffin was the wife of Walter Burley Griffin, architect of Canberra. Marion was an architect in her own right and there is debate by historians as to how much of the work attributed to Walter (and to Frank Lloyd Wright) was actually by Marion. Christopher's thesis is that Walter and Marion's work was a genuine collaboration. They worked with, influenced and were influenced by others, so it not a simple case of: the plans were his and the drawings hers.

This may seem a long way from my usual work on IT, but issues of collaboration and intellectual property arise regularly. IT people are taking a technical legal and social approach to solving the problem, with things like the Creative Commons.

I am a bit of a Griffin fan and I gave a talk to the students of the "new Bauhaus" architecture school a few years ago linking the early plan of Canberra to telecommunicatons.

One of the sad facts is that the major buildings designed by Griffin in Australia were rubbish incinerators, mostly now demolished. Last week in Sydney I happened to pass the site of one of Griffin's incinerators in Glebe. A small building remains on the site, (see photo).

Speaking of buildings, the Canberra meeting was help from the "Shine Dome", located on one of the central parts of Griffin's Canberra plan. The building looks like something from a 1950s science fiction film. It has a domed lecture hall with seats like those of an FJ Holden, complete with a transmission hump on the floor.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

My First Cheque from Google

Tom Worthington with Google Cheque

This photo is of my first cheque from Google for advertising on my web site. I had to get it to the bank quickly as it is printed on flimsy paper and was falling apart.

Google advertising it's going to make me a fortune but I wanted to see how it works as an example of e-commerce. I gave the ANU e-commerce students a lecture on
Google advertising and set them an assignment question to work out how to build something similar.

The students tend to doze off when I am telling them how to use the web, metadata and all that technical stuff to do business on-line. What gets their attention is when I talk about something like selling books on-line and use the magic words: "this is not just theory, I use this to make MONEY". :-)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bending Bicycle Better

Cheeky Monkey Workshop

I wrote in "Bending Bike Broke: Frame break on a folding bicycle" September 08, 2005:
The steel frame of my Dahon "Boardwalk 6", 6 speed 20" 2003 model folding bicycle broke in half Tuesday. At the time I was riding it at a bicycle path road crossing in Canberra. Fortunately there was no on-coming traffic and my helmet and clothing protected me from serious injury.
The people at Cheeky Monkey have installed a new frame and the bike is as good as was. There wasn't a steel frame available so my Dahon Boardwalk now has the aluminum frame of the up-market Vitesse model. This is painted a cool looking matte black. This was done under warranty and I only had to pay a small shipping charge.

Cheeky Monkey's shop is under the viaduct carrying the Tram to Central Station. It has a similar ambience to the bicycle shop in Cambridge. Hidden under a pile of panniers I found an Ortlieb Shuttle. This is a carryon sized wheeled bag designed for a bicycle and much like my previous wishlist.

Riding the bicycle back from was an adventure in itself. I passed the Sydney International Motor Shown at the Darling Harbor exhibition center. Tons of dirt have been piled up outside the center to form an artificial off-road driving track so that customers can simulate off road driving in large shiny four wheel drives.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

ICT Reference Group Meeting

ABS House

10:30am 11 October 2005, at ABS House Canberra

Statistics aren't always dull. This week I attended a meeting at the Australian Bureau of Statistics at ABS House in Canberra:

"The ABS established an ICT reference group in early 2004 involving government, industry, academic and community representatives. The aim of the reference group is to improve the usefulness of ICT statistics in Australia from a variety of sources. The reference group provides a high level forum for understanding, improving and developing ICT statistics, providing members with the opportunity to discuss and consider strategies to address ICT statistical issues ..."

I was there as Director of the Communications Technologies (Telecommunications) Board of the The Australian Computer Society. The meeting was attended by about 20 people, one third from ABS, one third from other agencies and one third from non-government bodies, including AIIA, ACS, and Telstra. These are some notes I prepared (comments and corrections welcome).

ICT Satellite Accounts

A new macroeconomic report on ICT (to be called: "ICT Satellite Accounts") is due out in early February 2006:

An ICT satellite account defines ICT products and identifies their supply and use, so that a comprehensive set of economic data relating to ICT activity can be compiled for the Australian economy. Among other things, this allows us to quantify the size of ICT production relative to other types of economic activity.

This should provide some impressive numbers for the media, of the “IT contributes $XXX billion to economy” sort.

Live demonstration - National Data Network

The National Data Network will provide infrastructure, protocols, standards, and services to support acquiring, sharing and integration of data across Australia.

The NDN looked very good. It is essentially a catalogue and gateway to Australian statistics at various organizations. There are some publicly available statistics there, but much of the data will require prior apporval to use, for priovacy reasons.

Information Development Plan

Information Development Plan (IDP) - The ABS is in the process of developing an IDP for ICT information. The ABS is taking a lead role in this development, but will not be the owners of the outputs of this process. There are many stakeholders involved in the production and use of ICT information and it is important for the success of the IDP process to involve and engage with these users and producers. The development of IDPs is seen by the ABS as an important element in progressing the National Statistical Service. Its effectiveness is manifested in how useful it is for decisions made on statistical priorities.

ABS doesn't have the resources to work on the IDP at the moment and will see if they can do it next year. The work DCITA has done on ICT productivity (reported at SEARCC 2005) could do with more support with more stats. James Shaw from DCITA talked about this at the ANU and again at SEARCC 2005 in September:

... we have the paradox that while a lot of computers and telecommunications are being used, economists are saying this don't increase productivity. ...
To explore this paradox, DCITA funded research to produce better measures of efficiency. These show about a 40 to 80% productivity boost with technology. Of course it is the Information Economy Division of the Department funding this work, so you might suspect the researchers are telling them what they want to hear. ;-)
URL: <>

Broadband Statistics

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) produces a regular broadband snapshot and is looking at changes:

The ACCC collects data on broadband take-up from a limited number of broadband providers, cross-classified by technology type and type of customer. This information is summarised in the ACCC's snapshot of broadband deployment reports.
The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts issued the Monitoring and Reporting on Competition in the Telecommunications Industry Determination 2003 (No. 1) (on the DCITA website) on 5 May 2003 under sub-ss. 151CMA(1) and (3) of the Trade Practices Act. The determination requires the ACCC to report quarterly at the aggregate level on wholesale and retail broadband availability and take-up, cross-classified by technology type, data speed, data usage, geographic postcode and business sector. ...
URL: <>

There was a long, and very familiar, discussion of what exactly is "broadband". ABS uses the definition of "always on 256k". This seemed to be the consensus and fitted with what I found when I asked ACS members about the government's Blackspots program. But in reality a claimed 256k connection might only give you 64kbps and even if you get 256k we should aim for more from a public policy point of view in the long term.

Others suggested a higher figure and more levels of measurement (ABS only measures up to 2Mbps). By the way my own submission to the previous Senate broadband inquiry was subtitled "Never mind the bandwidth, feel the quality". ;-)

One problem in conducting a survey of Internet access is that consumers may not understand what sort of broadband they have (whereas ISPs would). Another issue discussed was if wireless numbers should be collected. I suggested it was a good time to start collecting stats on wireless (have a wireless modem in my
Smart Apartment and noticed another one in the window of an apartment building opposite).

A fundamental problem with the definition of broadband is what are you measuring? As an example of the problems, one person at the meeting said they would compare dial-up use with broadband. But wireless ISPs now provide non-dialup non-broadband (less than 256kbps) services.

The ACCC is reviewing its broadband statistics for 2006. It is looking to collect more detail, such as: Retail V wholesale, postcode, transmission speed, business V residential. But this costs money and takes time. I suggested that the Internet itself might be used to collect statistics on subscribers and speeds. The routers in the network might be used to collect some statistics, for example. This got a sceptical reaction, but will be looked at. Might also be useful for DCITA's review of their Strategic Framework for the Information Economy (SFIE).

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

There was a general discussion of what VoIP stats might be useful (and useful enough for people to pay for). It would cost money to include questions about VoIP in household surveys. I suggested asking the ISPs how much voice traffic there is on their networks. Some suggested ISPs have such stats but wouldn't provide them unless compelled to. The take-up rate of Digital TV then came up. I couldn't see how this fitted with VoIP, apart from being another gadget. Also I pointed out that having the gadgets didn't mean they were used. I bought a VoIP box and a HDTV card, but so far don't use them much.

Follow-up on Value of Information Propositions

Value of information propositions - This item was introduced at earlier reference groups, proposing guidelines for a process of determining the value of information. A more in-depth discussion took place, with the basic hypothesis being that information is valuable if it causes a decision change, and information affecting multiple decisions is as valuable as the most valuable use.
URL: <>

Couldn't understand what this was about.

Collection of Business Characteristics Data

Collection of business characteristics statistics - The ABS is in the process of conducting investigations into better integrating business characteristics statistics. It is considered that this integration will yield efficiencies and an increase in the usefulness of these statistics.
URL: <>

There was some discussion of how to increase the accuracy of the stats. I didn't know what they were collecting so couldn't comment.

Next meeting

The next meeting will be around March 2006. It will discuss Spam. So I wonder if ABS will e-mail a survey out to everyone about Spam? ;-)