Sep 27
Python, Pebble and tramtracker
Posted by Colin in Stuff on 09 27th, 2014| | 2 Comments »

I’m brushing up on some technical skills and working on a few small projects. One of those is to create a TramTracker app for my Pebble Smartwatch, so I can just glance at my watch to see when the next tram is coming.

As a precursor, I got a handle on the TramTracker data source and made a Python module to quickly fetch the info my watch will need. I’m mentioning it here for the benefit of anyone with similar ideas googling around in the future. It’s on GitHub and in PyPI. I also made another module, pdfpipe, which is a python command line tool that takes text and spits out PDFs. I’ve found it quite useful.

The Pebble App is now up on the Pebble App store. So if you are one of the one (1) other Melbournians I know with a Pebble, go grab it. The source is available as well.



Sep 19
Installing Ubuntu onto a bootable USB stick or other device on a Mac
Posted by Colin in Stuff on 09 19th, 2014| | Comments Off

I recently had a reason to want to boot Linux on my Mac which already has a Windows Bootcamp partition. I wanted to just install Ubuntu onto a USB stick or hard drive and boot from that. The first bit turned out to be easy, but getting it to boot was quite arcane. I found lots of conflicting information on the web, and even after drinking from this fire hose of useful information it took a lot of trial and error to get it working.

It is possible – you just have to install like normal but requires a third-party boot loader and bit of jiggling before it will boot on its own. I’ve documented what I did below for posterity and others beating their head against the same issue.

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Aug 27
Is the NBN value for money?
Posted by Colin in Internet, Media, Opinion, Politics on 08 27th, 2014| | 1 Comment »

Today the Abbot government released their cost-benefit analysis of the NBN and their own, mixed-technology model. Not surprisingly (for a report commissioned by the Government), the analysis finds that the Coalition’s fibre-to-the-node NBN is more cost-effective than Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) model. The case for FTTP isn’t good, according to this document. The mixed-technology model comes out $16b ahead in terms of value for money.

I discussed this report on the The Project in the evening. Have a watch below.

Setting aside the issue of the impartiality of the study, one can assume they have the costs in the ball-park at least. But what about the benefits? This is where the debate will be, because some of the assumptions about the value to the country of faster broadband are highly questionable.

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Aug 22
The frantic life of a media adviser
Posted by Colin in Uncategorized on 08 22nd, 2014| | Comments Off

In another article for Crikey I described the life of a Parliamentary media adviser. I’m trying to explain as neutrally as possible what goes on in that place, but I think you can tell I found the media stuff a bit exhausting:

Your alarm goes off at 5am. As you slowly come to groggy consciousness, you feel the sense of subdued panic that greets you every morning. You regret staying up until midnight waiting for the online papers to change over, but after watching Lateline you were too wired to sleep anyway. Before you even open your eyes, you try to make sense of what the radio announcer is saying as you reach for your phone to scan the headlines. The professional in you hopes there is a big story and you can start the ring around of breakfast and talkback radio. Another part of you longs for a quiet day and a tap of the snooze button.

Read more here.

Jul 24
I’m not a lobbyist yet
Posted by Colin in Writing on 07 24th, 2014| | Comments Off

Hi there. I’m back from 3 years as a political staffer, working for Senator Richard Di Natale in the federal parliament. It was an amazing experience, working under high pressure but for an amazing boss and as part of a dedicated and united team. I will have more to say on it later on. For now, I wrote about some of what I learned from Canberra’s lobbyists in Crikey last week:

As the 12 new senators who took their seats last week are finding out, being a member of Parliament brings with it both perks and liabilities. Along with the comcar, a plush seat inside the chamber and the discreet lapel pin (red for senators, green for reps) that all 226 MPs receive comes another certainty: a steady stream of lobbyists through the door. I witnessed this during three years as a political staffer dealing with lobbyists of all stripes.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Jul 20
Fire the censor
Posted by Colin in Internet, Opinion on 07 20th, 2011| | Comments Off

As somebody with a keen interest in free speech issues, I’m naturally predisposed to skepticism when it comes to government censorship. The system we have in Australia serves two purposes; it provides information to consumers (“MA15+ – extreme nudity and wisecracking animals”) and protects Australians from morally inappropriate material, such as spanking or violent video games. The first job has some merit to it – I’ve often looked at the rating of a film myself to get a bit more information on what I’m about to watch, even if I’m hoping for a higher value. The second I don’t have much time for.

The classification system was conceived at a time when the media Australians consumed was shipped around as physical objects (books, magazines, video tapes) and doled out by gatekeepers charged with enforcing censorship laws (newsagents, movie theaters, video shops). Information could be regulated like alcohol or tobacco; no naughty magazine without ID. In that case, classification-based censorship is at least practical. What do we do in a world where all content is digital? Is there anything we can do?

I was recently involved in preparing EFA’s submission to the ALRC review on the classification system. In that submission, we argue that the classification system simply can’t be made to work in an all-digital world. To me, this isn’t a controversial statement. You are, after all, reading this in a web browser from which you can, in seconds, be watching movies that have never been rated by the classification board. Indeed, many of them wouldn’t be rated by the classification board if they did see them. They would be banned if they were on a DVD.

If the existence and access to all this freely available moral pollution has had a detrimental effect on society, it hasn’t outweighed the benefits that the internet has brought. If you’re using the web, you’re already living in an uncensored world; why don’t we just acknowledge it?

The submission doesn’t appear to be up on the ALRC’s submission page yet for some reason, but if you’re interested you can grab it from this link here.

Earlier in the year I also wrote a more readable article arguing the same thing, you can read that here at the ABC.

Jun 28
Lurking in Canberra
Posted by Colin in Stuff on 06 28th, 2011| | Comments Off

If you’re one of my fans (hi, Mum) you’ll have noticed I’ve been a bit quiet recently. Fortunately, I haven’t suffered organ failure of been taken hostage by jihadists. It’s just the usual story where a confluence of professional and extra-curricular obligations have curtailed my writing and blogging activities.

The upshot of my recent activity is a big change in direction, and one I’m very excited about. I’ve stepped down as EFA chair so I can enter the world of of federal politics on the staff of incoming senator Richard Di Natale. I begin when the new Senate starts on Friday, 1 July. As Senator Di Natale’s advisor I look forward to indulging my passion for policy and public debate, not only in the areas of technology and digital rights that I have been so vocal about in recent years, but in the much broader sphere, particularly Green politics.

I’ll no doubt be extremely busy in the near term coming up to speed on an exciting new job. As I lurk in Canberra, I look forward to reporting back on the successes of the Greens parliamentary team and giving some insight into how the


Jun 27
Hackers, crackers and descriptive linguistics
Posted by Colin in Internet, Opinion on 06 27th, 2011| | Comments Off

I had a spot on 7PM Project last week talking about Cybercrime, in particular the hack of the CIA by LulzSec. I got some comments afterwards about the abuse of the word hacker by the media. As a geek, I should know better. But I’m unrepentant.

The educated nerd knows that a hacker is someone with technical skills and that hacking is synonymous with coding or another sort of focused, applied and creative engineering. Someone who makes a habit out of circumventing security is a cracker. A safe cracker, or the act of cracking a code, would have the same provenance.  Thus, the use of hacker in the context of network security would appear to be incorrect.

But it isn’t, really. One thing I took away from my study of linguistics was a respect for descriptive linguistics over the prescriptive. Language prescription, which is when an authority attempts to enforce the correct use of language, perhaps has some merit in helping standards to develop. But when the speakers of a language have diverged from that standard, attempting to force them back into conformity is always futile. Languages are living things, and evolve rapidly over time. This is something to be respected whether we think it desirable or not. (Those of us who enjoy using the neologisms of the day and take pleasure in adapting language for the current age will think it is.) So, where the dictionary definition conflicts with the meaning that is in overwhelming common usage, then it’s the dictionary that’s out of date, not the speakers.

This is clearly the case with the term ‘hacker’; to the vast majority of people I content that it conjures up the image of somebody (usually a pasty teenager) penetrating layers of network security for whatever end. The descriptive linguist in me concludes that there is no point fighting it even if we wanted to. In any case I’m certainly not going to preface an answer about the motivations of hackers with a linguistic correction.

You can watch the 7PM  spot below.

May 10
Best correction ever
Posted by Colin in Stuff on 05 10th, 2011| | Comments Off

Courtesy Crikey, this correction from the New York Times is hilariously nerdy (I approve):

“An item in the Extra Bases baseball notebook last Sunday misidentified, in some editions, the origin of the name Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, which Mets pitcher R. A. Dickey gave one of his bats. Orcrist was not, as Dickey had said, the name of the sword used by Bilbo Baggins in the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit; Orcrist was the sword used by the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in the book. (Bilbo Baggins’s sword was called Sting.)”

Apr 27
The copyright battle in Australia
Posted by Colin in Internet, Opinion on 04 27th, 2011| | Comments Off

There’s little sign that the global copyright war will let up any time soon. Wherever you go, the content industries are working hard to secure stronger “protections” for intellectual property and tougher penalties against those who infringe against these protections. Given the forces they can bring to bear – an army of lobbyists and an ocean of cash – it’s not surprising that industry has won many of these battles.

Australia is one front in this war, and several notable skirmishes have occurred in recent times. The most significant has been a case in which the movie studios, represented by AFACT (the “Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft”) sued Australia’s third-largest ISP, iiNet, for authorising copyright infringement by allowing its users to download movies using BitTorrent.

Under Australian copyright law, a third party can be held accountable for a breach of copyright if they are found to have authorised the breach by “countenancing” it and providing the means to do so. This was tested in the courts in 1975 when a university was found liable for breaches of copyright because it provided a photocopier which students could use to make copies of books.

Bringing this suit against iiNet was a clear attempt to make ISPs liable for the content traversing their networks and is a probable first step on the road to introducing a graduated response mechanism to Australia. The ultimate outcome of the case will have enormous repercussions for the future of the industry and copyright law in Australia.

Fortunately, the signs have been positive so far. AFACT initially lost the case, with a heartening judgement by the trial judge, Justice Cowdroy, who even took AFACT to task for misleadingly using the word “theft” in their name. Justice Cowdroy found that the ISP had not authorised the infringement because they did not provide or operate BitTorrent; and even if they did, could fall back on the safe harbour provisions of the Copyright Act.

Unfortunately the content industry were not willing to let things be, and despite already losing one appeal so far are set to take the case to the High Court. Should iiNet eventually be found liable, it will precipitate a seismic shift in the way ISPs operate and could usher in an era of greater monitoring and punitive measures for alleged infringers. The industry are clearly hoping for a “three strikes” system. It’s unlikely this would affect industry revenues, but Australian internet users would surely suffer from this lack of due process.

One of the more ridiculous but high profile cases involves two well-known songs with Aussie themes. Larrikin Music vs EMI is a case in which, for once, a large music publisher is on the receiving end of an overreaching copyright claim. Larrikin is a small company that owns the copyright to a well-known folk song, “The Kookaburra Song”, which was composed in 1932 for a contest being held by the Victorian Guides. They claim that their song was plagiarised in the opening flute riff used in the 80′s classic, Men At Work’s “Down Under”.

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