on the edge

computers & technology, books & writing, civilisation & society, cars & stuff

Greg Black

gjb at gbch dot net
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If you’re not living life on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.

FQE30 at speed

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Worthy organisations

Amnesty International Australia — global defenders of human rights

global defenders of human rights

Médecins Sans Frontières — help us save lives around the world

Médecins Sans Frontières - help us save lives around the world

Electronic Frontiers Australia — protecting and promoting on-line civil liberties in Australia

Electronic Frontiers Australia


(Coming soon…)

Software resources

GNU Emacs


The FreeBSD Project

Wed, 05 Jul 2006

Consistent errors with prescription medicines

I wonder what is the cause of the consistent errors I have seen with pharmacies dispensing the wrong medication or the wrong doses of the right medication in the past nine months? I’ve never seen either kind of error until recently, but the last few months I’ve been given something wrong four times out of five—not just at the one pharmacy and not just the one person when the error has been repeated at the same pharmacy.

It’s not a result of the infamous doctor’s bad handwriting, as these prescriptions and their repeat authorities have all been nicely computer generated and printed. Whatever the cause, it’s a worrying trend.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I strongly urge everybody to be vigilant in checking that what you receive is what you expected to receive.

Thu, 18 May 2006

The joy of supermarket queues

There’s something about queues in supermarkets that seems to bring out gloriously aberrant behaviour in what otherwise appear to be normal people.

Read the entire post ...

Fri, 24 Mar 2006

A change of heart

I was going to write a detailed post explaining how Leon Brooks was completely wrong in his rant in response to my brief post about Muslim Australia.

Read the entire post ...

Tue, 21 Mar 2006

An atheistic manifesto

While I’m at it, here’s a link to an interesting essay by Sam Harris. I’d recommend skipping the comments. They are, as far as I could see from a very quick scan, the usual level of rubbish that you’d expect.

Sun, 26 Feb 2006

Do we need big brother?

The behaviour of political leaders in recent years with respect to dealing with large scale crises flies in the face of common sense and historical data. There seems to be a certainty that people are too stupid to help themselves and that we need top-down control. One recent major failure of this model was seen in the pitiful response to the hurricane that devastated New Orleans.

While catching up on some of my reading today, I came across an interesting article in the New Scientist of 8 May 2004 entitled Heroes of the hour. It was written before Katrina, but the lessons in it are clear.

Minor update: the URL above takes you to the article summary. You need either to be a subscriber or to pay to read the whole thing.

Fri, 24 Feb 2006

Alisa Camplin, role model

Very nice post on Larvatus Prodeo suggesting that Alisa Camplin might be a good role model for boys. Go and read it.

Wed, 15 Feb 2006

Muslim Australia

I see the unspeakable Danna Vale is concerned Australia will become dominated by Muslims. I’m concerned about that too. But I’m far more worried that Australia might still be dominated by christians in another 50 years.

For those who care—and to provide me with a useful URL for future use, my stance on the value of all religions is nicely described by biologist PZ Myers. By the way, I recommend Myers’s blog to all intelligent readers.

Thu, 09 Feb 2006

Dealing with the copyright vigilantes

Recently, Anthony recounted a story of being harassed by some idiot who responded privately to something on a public list and then got excited when his precious private words were subsequently quoted in public. For what it’s worth, I think the idiot is wrong and Anthony is right.

But that’s not the real point of this post. I’ve been following my own policy about this kind of thing for a while now, but I haven’t published that policy. So, for the benefit of people who might be inclined to write privately to me in response to something I’ve written in a public forum, here’s how I will handle things.

If I respond at all, it will be a brief reply that points them here. I won’t read their email. I will delete their email as soon as I send the brief reply (or without even sending the brief reply if it’s somebody to whom I’ve previously given the brief reply). And when they get here, they’ll learn that the only way to get me to respond to anything they have to say about something that I posted in a public forum is to do the same (and without any of those silly statements about copyright and restricted rights and the other nonsense that certain excessively legalistic types seem so keen to inflict on the rest of us). In other words, if the conversation started as a public conversation, then the only way it can continue is in public.

The upside for me is that I get to avoid the kind of thing that just happened to Anthony and I get to have a published policy that explains what happened to all the vitriolic private messages that so many people seem to feel entitled to send my way. Yes, that’s right, they go straight to /dev/null where they belong.

Fri, 02 Dec 2005

Barbarism has its day

Singapore has conducted another barbaric and degrading killing of a human being with the execution of the unfortunate Van Nguyen.

I have no reliable information about his guilt or innocence and am not at all concerned with that.

The death penalty is always wrong. It is always cold-blooded murder and a society that uses it is demeaned by that.

I will certainly not set foot in Singapore while it maintains its policy of killing people.

Thu, 24 Nov 2005

November 25 is White Ribbon Day

This campaign seems important to me. November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The white ribbons are worn by people who support this cause.

Learn more about it, including how you can participate, at the Amnesty International website, in particular on the White Ribbon Day page.

Fri, 11 Nov 2005

Angst in the suburbs

Like most thinking people, I’m alarmed by the government’s hasty adoption of ill-conceived and unnecessary legislation as part of the so-called war on terror. I certainly don’t feel safer as a result of it. And I’m very concerned about the miscarriages of justice that it seems to be designed to accomplish.

I liked Sarah’s blog article about it, in particular the historical antecedents of the current situation. It would be good to see more people subjecting their governments’ programs to this kind of rational analysis.

Note: this entry has been updated now that the link above has been fixed.

Fri, 04 Nov 2005

What do names mean?

In recent years, I’ve noticed that many young women are choosing to adopt their husband’s family name on marriage. This was common, of course, in my parents’ time; but it fell severely out of favour during the years when I and my peers were marrying—for the first few times, at least.

When the 1960s feminists campaigned for the right of women to be treated as complete and proper people on their own, rather than as the appendages or property of their fathers and husbands, they made a bit of a point about not adopting husbands’ names. I certainly thought they had a strong argument; I still do. So I’m now puzzled about this apparent move to revert to the days of Mr and Mrs Bloggs.

None of the above is intended as criticism of people’s decisions to change their names—I’ve changed my name several times over the years (and copped quite a bit of flack over that), so I know what it feels like to make such a change and how it impacts people trying to connect with you when you disappear from sight. And I admit that I grew out of changing my name about 20 years ago and have found it helpful to have just one name to answer to, at least when I’m not attending reunions with people who knew me in one of my other incarnations.

Fri, 30 Sep 2005

War, terrorism, and more

I have just read three articles that seemed to deserve further thought. I’m not going to comment on them now, but am recording them here so that people following along here can follow the links (and for myself, to serve as a reminder).

The first two are web published, so should stick around. The third one only gets you a preview of the article—you need to be a New Scientist subscriber to read the full text.

Oh no, not that

I note that the ABC News cites Labor’s Kevin Rudd, commenting on a proposal for voluntary voting, as saying: “Voluntary voting … I just think we don’t want to Americanise our system here.”

This strikes me as astonishing—there are good reasons to argue against voluntary voting (although I don’t find them convincing myself), but to advance a silly argument like that shows a complete lack of serious thought. The ALP surely needs a few spokescreatures with some decent ideas and the ability to put those ideas across effectively.

Fri, 16 Sep 2005

Nutty neighbours get their just reward

The blocks around our place are mostly double wide and double deep—or they were before dividing blocks into smaller chunks became popular. As a result, the street numbering in our street skips every second number to allow for later sub-division. Our house is number 31. There is no 33. Our nutty neighbours are in 35. There is no 37.

Obviously, if our block was divided, 33 would spring into existence. If their block was divided, 37 would do the same.

But the nutty neighbours think that just means that their house, which is on a standard block (for this street), should be number 33 and number 35 and number 37. As evidence, they have painted the three numbers on their letter box.

When the new phone books were delivered, the helpful delivery people stacked three of them on the fence. This inspired the junk mail and local newspaper crowd, who proceeded to pile up three sets of everything as well.

Shortly after I first admired all this fine work, it got windy and stuff was scattered about nicely. Then it rained …

Wed, 25 May 2005

More on the torture question

Last week, I posted my initial reaction to news about support for torture in extreme circumstances, as espoused by a couple of Deakin academics. The story has been the subject of considerable controversy in the blogosphere and I don’t wish to extend the debate much more here. However, I think it would be good to respond to David’s post in reply.

David says:

I interpret Greg’s post as an attempt to goad me into a response.

Not at all. I wasn’t thinking about David at all—nor was I thinking of any of the other lawyers I know or do business with. My previous post was simply my immediate personal reaction to the original news story. And it suffered a bit from being such an immediate reaction, which is one of the reasons for today’s extra comment.

David chides me for not providing links to the original news stories, even pointing me to some online guidance about the process of providing links. I had good reasons for leaving out the links. For one, the Fairfax media have had a habit of making stories disappear or of only being available to subscribers. I can’t be bothered linking to them. For another, anybody interested in the story could find as much as they wanted with a few seconds of Google time.

Regarding my case, David says:

I’m deeply uncomfortable with the proposition that merely writing about it makes them “ethically bankrupt morons”.

I expressed myself badly there, but my point was that the authors followed their ethically bankrupt ideology and wrote what they wrote—not that writing something I didn’t like made them ethically bankrupt.

As for my call that Deakin “needs to purge itself of this cancer immediately”, I can see that this could have appeared to be a call for the dismissal of the authors in question. That was not really my intent. What I’d like to see from Deakin is the same kind of response they would make in the case of staff who published opinions that slavery was fine because blacks are not human. Support for torture is in the same category as that. It needs to be treated similarly.

And, for the record, I don’t think

all lawyers are infected with their malaise.

And, for those who want more links, David’s post has heaps.

Tue, 17 May 2005

Call for legal torture

This morning’s news outlets have reported an extraordinary proposal by two would-be academics at Deakin University—one of whom is currently the head of the law school—calling for the legalisation of torture. According to The Age, this pair of ethically bankrupt morons consider that torture should be permitted in cases of great need, e.g., in the so-called “war on terror”.

Given their academic status, you’d imagine that they could have done some basic research which would have shown them that there is no credible evidence that torture convinces victims to tell the truth. All it is proved to do is coerce people into telling the torturers what the victims think their captors want to hear.

Deakin needs to purge itself of this cancer immediately before its reputation is completely destroyed. And the legal profession needs to stand up en masse to denounce this stupidity before the rest of us conclude that the common prejudice against lawyers is completely justified.

Sun, 24 Apr 2005

Disgraceful honours for the old thug

Just for the record, I am disgusted that Peter Beattie has chosen to give a state funeral to Joh. He was a disgrace and certainly deserves no honours now.

Sat, 12 Mar 2005

World of Burgercraft

Nice spoof on World of Warcraft, seen on Matthew Skala’s blog.

Fri, 11 Mar 2005

Conference timing inevitably sucks

One of minor disadvantages of working for ourselves is that Chrissie and I have to pay our own way to get to professional conferences. So we tend to each have one favourite that we try to get to each year. And, since we don’t get much time off, we tend to arrange a bit of leisure time along with the conferences.

The problem with that is that her national family therapy conference and my national AUUG conference both tend to happen in September or October. This year, to make things nice, they’re both in Sydney—which is good because it’s close enough to visit and we have friends and family to see while we’re there. But her conference is in the fourth week of October while mine is in the second week. There’s no way she can afford to be away from her clients for three weeks at that time of the year, so it looks like I’ll have to miss AUUG 2005. Bit of a shame really, as I’ve only made it to two conferences in the nine years since we moved to Brisbane. Oh well, can’t be helped. Maybe next year.

Yes, we could each go to our own conference on our own, but we do like to be together rather than apart, so the way to accomplish that is for us to go to Sydney for her conference and for me to whine about missing mine. Since she was the main organiser of her conference last year in Brisbane, she’s expected to play a visible role at this year’s event, whereas nobody will notice if I don’t make it to the AUUG conference.

Sat, 19 Feb 2005

Revolutions Revelations Resolutions

As promised recently, I went back and had a longer and much more thorough look at Tim Page’s photo exhibition, Revolutions Revelations Resolutions, at the powerhouse today.

I was originally attracted to the exhibition because of its Vietnam War content, but discovered this time that about half of the space was randomly given over to other material—no doubt interesting in its own right, but of no interest to me today. What the other material did for me was merely to dilute the impact of the Vietnam content.

Leaving aside the non-Vietnam content, how did it strike me the second time around? The venue is not ideal for a photo exhibition, partly because it has so much distracting visual content anyway and partly because the light from outside is pretty uncontrolled which makes actual seeing difficult.

The photos themselves were pretty evocative, as I thought on my previous visit. Perhaps they are what you’d expect from a photo journalist in that kind of situation, but still they seemed to capture the essence of much of what I saw during my time there—blood, fear, grief, stupidity, waste, destruction, cruelty and madness. Some of the worst excesses of war were missing—whether because he failed to capture them or because he censored himself or was censored, I don’t know. And I certainly don’t regret the missing elements.

But today I made a much more serious effort to read the captions and I’ve also read most of his book, Tim Page’s NAM, which I purchased at the exhibition. So, rather than just interpreting the photos in the light of my own experience and the exhibition theme “from war to peace”, I can now put them into the photographer’s context.

And that’s where it went off the rails a bit for me. Page clearly has anti-war sentiments, at least to some extent. But his attitude, as shown in his captions and in the text of the book, is very gung-ho and boys’ own adventure and, to a lesser extent, jingoistic. He speaks constantly of “the enemy” and “us”; he employs many of the standard pejoratives of the time when speaking of the Vietnamese; and he makes it clear whose side he is on. From where I stand, he would have served his theme—from war to peace—better if he’d managed a more objective stance.

And, although I clearly have an agenda of my own—born out of my involvement in the war as a conscript—I really think the eclectic collection of images from other places (e.g., Cambodia, Sri Lanka, England) detracted from the impact of the exhibition. At the least, I’d have liked to see the Vietnam material displayed together and separately from the rest.

When I wrote about my first visit, I said that I might try to track Tim Page down to talk with him about the exhibition. But, after my visit today, I don’t think I’ll do that. Something tells me that we would end up having very different views of it all and I’d rather just take his images away with me as a reminder of a dark part of our history and a very dark part of my own life.

Should other people visit it? Yes, I think so. Nothing is ever perfect, but that’s not a reason to avoid things. And, since we all have different baggage and different experience to bring to such an exhibition, it’s quite likely that it will speak to people in ways that make the visit worth while. And if it does anything at all to push an anti-war message, then that is all to the good.

Sat, 05 Feb 2005

Photo exhibition

When we’d finished our champagne cocktails at Watt, we wandered off towards the river for a walk. For no particular reason, our path took us back through the powerhouse, where we stumbled into a new photographic exhibition that opened there a couple of days ago: Revolutions Revelations Resolutions, a solo show by Tim Page.

During the past decade—and especially the past three years—it has been difficult to go for long without being confronted by images of war. Like most people with an imagination, I find all such images disturbing. But I have become somewhat accustomed to them.

But images of a war that you were involved with have an altogether different impact. I don’t seek out images of the Vietnam war and have not seen any for quite some time—so I was quite startled when I walked in on this set. Despite difficult light when you approach from the back, I instantly identified the material and was transported back 37 years in a flash. This was like being hit in the stomach, it was so strong. I wandered around for a short time, taking in those oh so familiar scenes. They were so evocative, I could smell them and I could hear the sounds.

Coming upon this unexpectedly turned out to be a bit too much, so I only spent a short time there today. Fortunately, the exhibition continues until the end of the month, so I can prepare myself a bit and make a planned return to explore it a bit more thoroughly. I think I’ll try to track Tim Page down as well—I think it might be interesting to talk with him about this.

Sat, 01 Jan 2005

Australian hospitality

According to news.com.au, “The Bakhtiyari family could face a bill of more than $3million to repay the costs of their detention following their deportation from Australia.”

Kind of our government isn’t it? Detain them, persecute them in the courts, separate kids from parents, finally deport them, and now there’s talk of asking them to pay for all this hospitality. It looks as if asylum seekers are being encouraged to look elsewhere for shelter. It’s only a news.com.au story, so it could be completely wrong—but it could also be based on the truth. If there’s any truth in it, it’s one more disgraceful thing perpetrated by our pitiful excuse for a government. It’s enough to make you ashamed of being Australian.

Tue, 28 Dec 2004

Google ads lack sensitivity

I went to read a news story about the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster and was greeted by some Google ads. The top one, with a link to ebay, was:

Earthquake Disaster

Earthquake Disaster for sale. Check out the details now!

Wed, 25 Aug 2004

Politicians to waffle at conference

The AUUG’2004 conference will be graced by politicians from three major political parties, according to this press release. I’m really rather glad I’m not going this year—it would be hard not to be rude in the face of such attractive targets. I have to say that the idea of these people delivering keynote speeches fills me with a huge desire to yawn.

Fri, 16 Jul 2004

Security jokes

On my recent trip to Melbourne, I was startled to see that it’s now a crime to make jokes about security in airports—notwithstanding the self-evident fact that airport security is little more than a joke. Bruce Schneier’s excellent monthly security newsletter CRYPTO-GRAM has plenty of stories that make this case pretty well.

Mind you, although I like Schneier, he lost a bit of credibility with this remark in the current issue:

The United States is admired throughout the world because of our freedoms and our liberties.

Somehow, no matter what its record was in earlier times, it’s impossible for me to see the US as a bastion of freedom or liberty at this stage in world history—and its record in the past is nowhere near as splendid as US apologists would like us to believe, but that’s too big a story to handle now.

But back to airport security. Going through the checks in Brisbane, I was not challenged. This was a first for me in the post-WTC world. My sister, however, had something in her carry-on bag that upset them. She was asked to remove the offending object, but nobody could tell her what it was or what it looked like. Eventually, they suggested that she hold some items in her hand while they sent the bag with the rest of its contents back through the scanner. Failed again. So they removed more stuff and tried again. This farce was repeated eight times—yes, eight times. Eventually, the guards decided that she was not a threat, and we were allowed to proceed.

On my return flight the same afternoon, my bag—unchanged from the morning—failed the test in Melbourne. It contained the same extremely threatening collapsible umbrella that was so harmless in the morning. I had to remove the umbrella, unpack it, open it and demonstrate that I had not concealed a knife inside it.

But if I was going to hide a weapon inside it, I would have at least hidden it inside the hollow shaft of the umbrella and nobody looked there. If the security people are reading this, I hope they’ll take note and destroy every umbrella that goes through Melbourne airport from now on. It won’t bother me, because I don’t plan to go back to Melbourne for any more funerals and so I won’t need to take an umbrella in the future. And we’ll all feel so much safer if we know they’re looking after us properly.

Tue, 13 Jul 2004

ALP loses more ground

I have previously written about my growing disenchantment with Mark Latham’s leadership of the ALP. I now discover that he has watered down one of the policy decisions that I had been pleased with—as reported by ABC News. It seems that, although he’s sticking to his promise to withdraw our troops from Iraq, he is now promising the USAnians that he’ll be happy to rush off to war “if the US was the target of another major terrorist attack.” The ABC story suggests that this undertaking is intended to boost the ALP’s credentials with the United States, and that certainly seems to be a fair assessment. There is now no chance at all that I’ll vote for the ALP in the next election.

Sun, 11 Jul 2004

The Political Compass

Ben Fowler recently directed my attention to The Political Compass, a site that offers an anonymous test of one’s political position in a more useful fashion than the old and rather simplistic left/right approach.

I found it a useful tool, although I would have preferred to see a “don’t care” option in the answers. Their FAQ—which they recommend reading after taking the test, so I won’t link to it here—provides a perfectly valid explanation for this decision; nevertheless, I would have liked such an option for a tiny minority of questions. Despite that, I doubt if my score would have changed in any significant way if such an option had been provided.

I think it’s well worth visiting this site and taking their test.

For the record, my scores were -7.88 on the economic (or left/right) axis and -7.49 on the social (or libertarian/authoritarian) axis. This fits pretty well with my expectations.

Thu, 24 Jun 2004

The ALP has lost the plot

When Mark Latham took over the helm of the ALP, I was cautiously optimistic about the direction it might take; and almost anything seemed better than the two drones that he succeeded. But the past few days have seen two really woeful policy decisions—the support for the government’s plan to bump up the price of PBS medicines by 30 per cent; and now support for the so-called free trade agreement with the USA.

For ever so long, the ALP has stated that increases in medicine costs would hurt those least able to pay; that was true then and it’s still true today. There’s just no excuse for this. All the bleating about what they’ll be able to do with all the lovely money these savings will provide to future budgets is beside the point. They are supposed to be concerned about the poor and the weak, and now they seem to be happy to trample on them.

As for the free trade agreement—apparently a consequence of Johnny’s little suck up to the Americans over Iraq—just don’t get me started on this one now …

Anyway, to put this into clear terms, my intention had been to give Latham time to show his colours before deciding whether to turn away from the ALP at the next elections. As far as I can see, there’s no need to wait any longer. The ALP, for the first time ever, can expect not to get my vote at the next elections.

Fri, 18 Jun 2004

A Moral Chernobyl

Martin Pool links to this story by Christopher Hitchens. It’s worth reading—and the next steps won’t be pretty.

Fri, 21 May 2004

The guards at Abu Ghraib should not take all the blame

I’ve been displeased, although not surprised, by the eagerness of the US authorities to put all the blame for the disgraceful behaviour at the Abu Ghraib prison solely on the shoulders of the guards. As the famous Stanford Prison Experiment showed in 1971, the behaviour of the guards was exactly what you’d have expected. The real crime, in the light of over three decades of knowledge, was carried out by the people in charge—they did nothing to oversee their troops and so the outcome was entirely predictable.

Philip G. Zimbardo, who ran the Stanford experiment, has written a very brief analysis, Power turns good soldiers into ‘bad apples’. I suggest that it’s obligatory reading.

Mon, 17 May 2004

A brief introduction

For the benefit of people who stumble in here and don’t know me, I’ve put together a few of the salient facts about me. I’ve been writing software and loving it for over twenty years. In previous lives I did a bit of writing and a bit of truck driving and a few other things that don’t really matter now.

I’m strongly opposed to war; intolerance; discrimination—especially against women, children and displaced indigenous people; organised religions; nationalism; and the uncritical acceptance of authority. I actively support organisations that work for what I see as a better world, such as Amnesty International Australia, Médecins Sans Frontières and Electronic Frontiers Australia.

By extension, I’m opposed to the invasion of Iraq and to the detention of refugees—especially women and children—in concentration camps in Australia.

I play with cars, mainly taking my E30 BMW to race tracks where it is fast enough to keep out of the way of all the expensive cars and to allow me to come home with a big smile.

I don’t find computer games interesting, but I love talking about software and how it works; and I enjoy mentoring younger programmers.

I don’t like dogs; I like cats, but am allergic to them; I’m supposed to be renovating my house, although that project is moving so slowly that some people think it’s a mere fantasy.