Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Blockchain Challenges for Australia: An ACS Technical Whitepaper

The Australian Computer Society has released "Blockchain Challenges for Australia". This is a technical whitepaper produced after a workshop at the new ACS HQ in Sydney.  I contributed to the section on blockchain for education and will be speaking on "Mobile Learning with Micro-Credentials for International Students", at EduTECH in Sydney, 4pm 6 June 2019.

This is the third in a series of ACS Blockchain reports. The first was "Blockchain 2030: A Look at the Future of Blockchain in Australia" prepared by CSIRO (April 2019), and "Blockchain Innovation: A Patent Analytics Report" by IP Australia (November 2018).
"Bitcoin gave birth to the blockchain technology ten years ago. Blockchain promises to disintermediate interactions between individuals by offering security of exchanges without relying on a central authority of trust. As a result, blockchain has been trialled in various sectors ranging from finance and insurance to energy.

A decade later, Australia is at the forefront of blockchain technology in terms of regulation, research and industry applications. Among many achievements, its standards organisation has been chosen to lead the secretariat of blockchain standards for the ISO; ARC-funded research has produced one of the most scalable blockchain systems; and the World Bank chose an Australian bank to implement the first blockchain-based bond.

Yet, blockchain poses significant challenges that prevent Australia from fully exploiting its promised benefits for our economy and society. This technical white paper identifies some of the predominant challenges for applying blockchain technology in different contexts in Australia and proposes technical directions to overcome these.

The identified challenges are scalability, security, regulation, education and employment. These challenges are of strategic importance, as blockchain promises not only to reshape the Australian economy but also to rethink business interactions within the Australian society.

The directions that this technical white paper explores for solving these challenges include the analysis of use cases; the education of key actors; the exploration of blockchain development, especially surrounding consensus; and further understanding of regulations. They specifically include assessing the requirements for each use case in terms of speed, volume, scalability and security, in order to identify the most appropriate blockchain proposal for a given application. They also include a roadmap to help
technical and legal professionals interact on specific topics."
From: Blockchain Challenges for Australia, ACS 2019.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

High Throughput Time Series Data

Greetings from the Canberra Big Data Meetup, on High throughput ingestion of time series data. This is at the Canberra Innovation Network/E29 offices. The first talk was by, Jordan Braiuka, from the host for the event, Canberra company Instaclustr, on using Cassandra to store 1 million metrics a minute. Not to be outdone, Mike Leonard, from Reposit Power (also a Canberra start-up), talked about ingesting 12 Million Data Points per Hour with OpenTSDB.

Instaclustr monitor servers, and Reposit Power the batteries in people's homes, but from a data storage point of view these are similar. The emphasis here is on being able to store large amounts of data quickly, and be able to query it for standard reports. For today's IT professionals, brought up with relational databases, the concepts used to do this efficiently will be novel. However, for someone like myself, trained in the mainframe pre-relational era, it is all very familiar. It is good to see there are modern tools to implement these decades old techniques, and proponents using them.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Steam Punk Pygmalion New Theater Sydney

Saturday night I attended "Pygmalion", at the New Theater, Newtown,  Sydney. This is not My Fair Lady, and is more Weill than Lerner and Low, set in a smoggy, dangerous, grimy London.

Much was made in the promotion of this show about it being set Steampunk style. The costumes are striking, with characters adorned with assorted old odd items. Some characters reminded me a little too much of "The Doctor's Wife" episode of Dr Who. But it is worth seeing this show just for the costumes. Hopefully they will be preserved.

However, the upper-class characters were still allowed to look suitably fashionable. But, what stuck me more was how tall they looked. I spent the first thirty minutes trying to work out if it was some trick of false perspective in the set design, if the cast were on stilts, or they were just very, very, tall. After that I gave up wondering, and just enjoyed the show.

The elaborate costumes, and a few pieces of furniture, contrasted with a muted abstract set. The New Theatre doesn't have the space, or budget, for elaborate set changes, but I would have liked a little more detail and color on stage. Also I have seen a little too much of the same steel mesh ramp in New Theatre productions.

For me Mr Doolittle stole the show, with a menace underling his friendly cockney banter. Clara and Freddy were suitably upper class twitish.

The lead performances were good. However, Pickering seemed to be being played by someone channeling Kenneth Branagh, with too many flicks of the mop of hair. Eliza's flinching whenever Pickering touched her was very effective, as was her girlish glee at chocolates, contrasted with a later steely determination.

The play retains its relevance as social commentary. Especially in the middle of an election, where both our major parties are offering handouts to the middle class, but next to nothing for those on Newstart allowance, treatment of the "undeserving poor" is unfortunately very relevant.

Pygmalion is at the New Theater, Newtown, in Sydney, until 25 May. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Canberra Trams Working but Need Safety Improvements

On Saturday I took my first ride on Canberra's new light rail system. The trams work, are fast, and reasonably comfortable, but some improvements need to be made to the information systems, and the safety of the network.
In late March I suggested to the Minster and Transport Canberra, some improvements for the safety of Canberra's trams. Here is the reply:
"Hi Tom, thanks for contacting us.

 Automatic Train Protection is a range of different signalling technologies that have been adopted to varying degrees across train networks in recent times. Only small parts of the Australian train network currently operate ATP. It is based upon (train) railway signalling systems that are utilised on train networks but not light rail/tram networks. There has been no adoption to date of ATP in light rail/tram networks.

Once the ATP technology is developed for light rail/tram systems it is expected most operators across the world will examine whether it is suitable and required for their networks.

Thanks, TC." Apr 2, 2019, 3:33 PM
In my view it would have feasible to at least install automatic stopping at stop signals for the trams, given far more sophisticated automatized systems are provided by the contracts in Europe.

Neither TC nor the Minister replied to my suggested upgrades to pedestrian crossings. However, one safety improvement I did notice at the  Macarthur Avenue stop, was a large retro-reflective sign "< LOOK>" had been painted on the pedestrian crossing. This is well placed to be seen by people looking down at a mobile phone while walking. However, the yellow sign is not as easy to see as you would expect. These signs are normally applied to a black road surface, and are harder to see against the gray concrete of the tram line. I suggest the signed be given a dark background, to increase the contrast.

The electronic signs at the stop proved to be confusing. These display the last stop on the line in large letters with a number next to it: "GUNGAHLIN PL 6". Another passenger asked me if this was the right platform for Gungahlin, and it too some time to work out what the sign meant. After a few seconds under this in small letters appeared "TO: Gungahlin 23 min". As the trams were supposed to be running every 15 minutes this made no sense. Then the large digit changed to "5" and I worked out this was a countdown to the next tram, and the smaller display was the one after that.

The tram arrived as per the sign, and I got on to what was a moderately crowded service. Even so I was able to get a seat. The trams are very similar to those on the Sydney and Newcastle lines. The ride was much less smooth than the older Newcastle line. The tram swayed from side to side, jerked over bumps, stopped and started with a jerk, and squealed around the corner at Epic. This is surprising for a new installed system. At one location I noticed what appeared to be welding metal left on the track, which may have added to the bumpy ride and indicates poor instantiation and testing of the track. Also at one point in my travels, the tram stopped suddenly, sending standing passengers sprawled onto the floor, fortunately without any apparent injuries.
not as
I alighted at Well Station Drive stop. Unfortunately the pedestrian crossing at this stop only has the "< LOOK >" sign on the road side of the crossing. It would be very easy for someone to step off the tram, and under the path of a tram coming the opposite way. I suggest "< LOOK >" be added to all crossings.

The Green Shed had posted to Facebook, pointing out there was now a stop near their second had store at the Mitchell Resource Management Centre (aka "The Tip Shop"). The information sign at the tram stop directed me to the center. However, I could not find a footpath from the stop to the center. Worse still, the bicycle path which previously ran beside the road was moved to the roadway, and the previous path plowed up. I watch as someone tried to pull their wheeled shopping bag over this broken path. I suggest the path be repaired.

I continued my journey to the stop at the end of the line: Gungahlin Place. As the doors opened, a flustered transport officer told us to alight from the other side of the tram. This was confusing as an announcement had just told us to use either side. The staff were having difficulty coping with the large number of passengers, and had sensibly decided to have them enter one side, and exit the other. But the onboard system needs to be changed to say this. Surprisingly, the pedestrian crossing here at the terminus was also not well marked. My return journey was uneventful.

The next day I took the tram to Civic. One pleasant surprise was a new coffee shop, "The Coffee Store", at the corner of David Street and MacArthur Avenue, a short walk from the tram.

The Civic terminus was not as busy as Gungahlin had been the day before. I noticed temporary barriers at the end of the platform, and at the crossing, to stop people walking into danger. I suggest these should be replaced with permanent barriers, and extended along the approaches to the platform. There was a passenger sitting on a raised concrete plinth next to the platform, with their legs dangling over the track. A transport officer quick, politely, but firmly told them to move. However, I suggest a barrier needs to be placed at this point, to stop passengers, deliberately, or accidentally going on to the track. Also I suggest fencing should be installed at the approaches to all stops, and crossings, to deter waling across the track. This could be progressively extended, until the entire route, from  Civic to Gungahlin is fenced.

The tram works, and will be an asset to Canberra. However, it does not work as well as that in Newcastle.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Amazon Cheque for Fourteen Cents Cheque My first payment from Amazon was ten years ago. Unlike Google, which pays by bank transfer in Australian Dollars, Amazon still sends old fashioned paper cheques, in US dollars.  Banks charge a considerable amount to deposit a foreign cheque, so I have the system set to only send one when the balance is high enough to make it worthwhile. So I was surprised to receive a cheque this week for fourteen cents.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Blockchain 2030 Report

Greetings from the Australian Computer Society's (ACS) head office in Sydney, at the launch of the report "Blockchain 2030: A Look at the Future of Blockchain in Australia". Speaking at the launch, ACS President, Yohan Ramasundara, likened blockchain to a fifth generation fighter being launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier into a turbulent sky. Ed Husic, Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy, was not wearing a green jacket (as those who launch carrier aircraft do), but launched the report. His main message was that we should not have to play catch-up on tech, such as blockchain.

This is the second report on Blockchain, from ACS. The first report was by IP Australia, the second (today), is by  CSIRO.

There was much talk about "trust" at the launch. However, I suggest that  blockchain is about doing business in the face of a lack of trust. Either you don't trust the people you are doing business with, or you don't trust the government, and the blockchain provides a way to work with this lack of trust.

One interesting question for the panel was what would be the effect of quantum computing on blockchain. Australia is a leader in both technologies. Unfortunately the panel did not have a clear answer.

ps: I am on the ACS Blockchain Committee.
'Blockchain technology is a distributed ledger technology whereby a database is distributed across numerous users, and changes to the database are validated by consensus among the users. While it is best known as the platform
for Bitcoin, blockchain technology can be widely applied to improve business processes, increase transparency, and drive the creation of new jobs and industries.

Over the last decade, blockchain technology has grown in popularity and use, and has already begun to disrupt existing markets in Australia and around the world. The opportunities blockchain presents have been invested in, studied, explored, and considered, in almost all sectors of the economy. Blockchain has attracted significant public and private investment, and introduced previously non-existent products and services across multiple industries.
Despite its potential, there is significant uncertainty regarding future adoption of blockchain technology in Australia. For instance, there are unknowns around blockchain’s capacity to work at scale while remaining decentralised, and protect confidentiality whilst also being transparent. The extent to which the public will trust decentralised systems is also uncertain. These uncertainties raise the question: can blockchain progress beyond the hype to deliver tangible, high-value applications and a thriving industry for Australia, or will blockchain amount to little more than a market bubble?'

From: "Blockchain 2030: A Look at the Future of Blockchain in Australia" CSIRO/Data 61, for ACS, 2019

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Once in Royal David’s City, New Theater

Michael Gow’s autobiographical play "Once in Royal David’s City" deals with the death of his mother.

The surreal elements of the play reminded me of Dennis Potter's, The Singing Detective for the BBC. Characters suddenly spotlighted burst into song*, or mimed to the sound of other actors. Characters explain to the audience what the next scene is, and interact with cast members sitting in the audience.

I am wary of any playwright getting autobiographical, and Gow is more self indulgent than most. However, this can be forgiven, due to the excellent performances in the New Theater production, particularly Alice Livingstone, as the dying mother.

* At one point the play gets a bit Reds. But a crowd spontaneously bursting into a revolutionary song is something I have seen happen in an Sydney Inner West pub. ;-)

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

IT in the 2019/2020 Australian Federal Budget

Some IT items from the 2019/2020 Australian Federal Budget:
  1. Stronger Regional Connectivity Package: $220M for improved internet and mobile services  in regional Australia.
  2. Unique Student Identifier (USI): $18.3 million over four years for a centralised digital training record, for both VET and university students. The USI currently applies only to the VET sector. The Australian Government is likely to find universities less cooperative with the USI than the VET sector. Worryingly, when I just tried the USI website, it was not responding.
  3. Online Safety Grants Program:  $10.0M over four years for online safety education for children. This funding is only for non-government organisations.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Technology to Improve the Safety of Canberra's New Trams

Two recent incidents, a pedestrian was struck by a  tram, and a tram running a red light, highlight the need for safety upgrades to Canberra's light rail network, before it goes into regular service. Better markings and low level lights for pedestrian crossings, plus activation of Automatic Train Protection (ATP), would make the network safer. These have been suggested to Transport Canberra, and Meegan Fitzharris MLA, ACT Minister for Transport. These measures would save money, by avoiding accidents. Otherwise those who decided to not to install safety measures may need to explain their actions in the ACT Coroner's Court, if there is a fatality.

Mark pedestrian crossings

In a recent incident, a pedestrian was struck by a test tram. When using the tram crossing near the station at the intersections of Northbound Avenue and  Macarthur Avenue, I noticed the crossing was difficult to see, as were the indicator lights. The crossing is the same gray concrete as the path leading up to it, with no contrasting color to mark where to stop, or where the crossing is. There are Hazard Tactile Indicators to warn those with low vision, but these are also in a low contrast color, and difficult to distinguish from the concrete. The pedestrian indicator lights are high up on poles. It is therefore very easy to step out into the path of a tram.

On the day I used the crossing there was a laminated paper sign attached to the poles near the indicator lights. This sign warned to look out for trams. However, the sign was flapping in the wind, hard to read, and was distracting from the indicator light, so increasing the risk of an accident.
The tram crossings should, I suggest, be marked in a contrasting color, as the adjacent road crossings are, and lower lights added. Low level lights are being trialed in Sydney and Melbourne.

Install Automatic Train Protection

In a recent incident reported in the media, a test tram ran through a red light. This indicates that Canberra's trams are either not equipped with Automatic Train Protection (ATP), or it is not functioning correctly. With ATP the tram would stop automatically at a red light, preventing accidents. ATP should be fitted and functioning before the system is put into service.

Update: 1 April 2019

Canberra is full of otherwise intelligent people, but they do not stop at tram crossings. I suggest fences are needed along the track, and at stops, as well as better marking, and signals, at crossings. 
Yesterday I waited fifteen minutes for a bus on
Northborne Avenue (while trams rattled past empty). In that time I saw several people use the crossing adjacent to the MacArthur Avenue tram stop. None of these people even paused as they approached the crossing, they did not look left or right, just walked strait across the tracks. The same people did stop, and look, at the road crossings. Several people also walked across the tracks not at the crossing. It would be easy to say these people deserve their fate, but we need to build infrastructure for people as they are, not as we would wish them to be.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Making the Internet of Things Practical and Useful

Newcastle IoT Coverage.
Image from
City of Newcastle.
Recently I was in Newcastle, just north of Sydney, on holiday. I was surprised to find down the end of the street Core Electronics, not only selling devices for the Internet of Things (IoT), but also running hands on workshops for the public. The company founder, Graham Mitchell, was out, but the next day I bumped into him at the nearby Fernleigh Cafe,  frequented by cyclists on the Fernleigh Track.

Core sell hardware for, and give workshops on,
Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN). This is the technology  the City of Newcastle is rolling out to help motorists find parking spaces, integrating transport, manage parks, and detect full bins. With a low cost network many other applications are possible, such as local sense of environmental conditions and pollution.

While much is made of ultra high speed 5G wireless,  that will require billions of dollars to install hundreds of thousands of base stations, and most Internet of Things (IoT) applications don't need high speed data. The LoRaWAN adopts a low speed, low cost DiY approach.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Blue Mountains Hotel Run by Australian University Students

Last night I stayed at the Waldorf Leura Gardens Resort Hotel in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. I selected this as the closest to the Everglades Historic House and Gardens. This was to attend the Leura Shakespeare Festival adapted and directed by Damien Ryan. After arriving I noticed that the hotel is staffed by students of the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School (BMIHMS) of Torrens University. The students are on holidays, so there were professionals staffing the hotel this weekend.

My last stay at a university hotel school was the Hotel Samudra, a training hotel of the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism & Hotel Management (SLITHM). Like the former hotel school at the Hotel Kurragong in Canberra (where I ran some events in the 1990s), Samudra caters to a small number of guests and has classrooms in the building.

The Waldorf Leura is very different, being an existing hotel which caters to the general public, with academic facilities located across the road in a separate facility. Apart from the signs mentioning Torrens University, you would not know this was associated with a university.

The Waldorf Leura grounds include the gardens created by Lady Mabel Fairfax and her gardener Hector Hood worked on this garden from the 1920s. Perhaps these could be used for outdoor theatrical performances, like those n Cambridge.

ps: Thanks to the Leura Newsagency for a wire coat-hanger to temporarily fix a dangling car tail-pipe.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Online program to help Australian Businesses With China Market

The China Canvas Challenge is a free online training program to help Australian business enter the China market. It is being run over the next few weeks by the Sydney business incubator Haymarket HQ, with support from the Australian Government. The format is similar to startup competitions such as Innovation ACT, except it is entirely online. First prize is a business trip to China. Other prizes are an hour with Jason Yat-Sen Li, Vantage Group Australia CEO, Terry Hilsberg, Venture Partner Innohub Capital, and a $100 Book Set.