<March 2005>
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Chris's Random Ramblings

Tue, 29 Mar 2005 - Money Laundering

Couldn't find my wallet this morning and then realised I had put it through the washing machine again. Not much paper left in there now, and luckily the Pedal Power membership card survived. Am very grateful we use plastic money these days. It seems pretty clean too. Have put my wallet near the air outlet of a 16 way POWER 4 box. Should be dry very soon.

Mon, 28 Mar 2005 - Hackfest 0.5 Release

Busy Easter weekend moving dishwashers, helping Kelly get her house ready for selling and catching up with friends, but managed to get some time to work on the Hackfest code. Release 0.5 is now available for download. Major changes:

Fri, 25 Mar 2005 - Pipe attempts to escape

Pipe's brother Gizzy is allowed to go outside, but Pipe isn't as he's a bit too trusting. So when Gizzy gets to wander supervised for a while outside, Pipe gets to stay in the bedroom. He's seen Gizzy outside through the window though. Pipe saw me take out the rubbish this morning, and in the afternoon he tried to sneak out by getting in the bin. Its either that, or he fell off the bed into the bin.

pipe in bin

pipe leaving bin

Thu, 24 Mar 2005 - Student Unions 3

Martin replies to my earlier reply. I agree with a lot of what he says in his reply.

It's not really similar: $20k is perhaps half the average income, but even when I was a moderately poor student my income was more than twice the union fee of ~$180. So it's really comparable to everyone paying $1400 per annum. (Which, when you put it that way, sounds pretty good.) And of course many taxes are unrelated to income.

I just kind of pulled the original $20,000 number out the air. I think the point here is that for many people they don't feel they get value for money out of the union fee. Though this is probably true for income tax as well. Someone told me the other day that about 40% of the population in Australia pay no net tax at all (no idea if its true).

I suspect its a kind of fact of life that in Australian society, where its seen as very important to help the disadvantaged, most people will end up putting more into the system than they get out of it. I'm quite happy with that situation, though I'm not convinced we need many layers of effectively compulsory taxation. Especially by bodies that have very low levels of voting participation.

Right, and you can make the exact same argument about taxes: if I feel that, say, hospitals are good, I ought to join a private HMO or pay my own bills or donate to a charitable hospital.

You can apply the same argument, but I think there is a big difference between funding a common good like hospitals and say the scuba or sailing club.

I don't see why compulsory fees should go to fund political, religious, sports or recreational societies. I have nothing against clubs, but it's clearly something people will pay for themselves, and people who don't participate shouldn't be forced to fund them.

I think that there would be much higher support for compulsory fees if this was true.

Therefore, I'd like to see competition between different unions: if one university wants to have a low-taxing union, why not let them? Why is this a federal government issue at all? (Well, I know why, but that's a different story.)

This is where I disagree the most with Martin. I think the choice should be given at the individual student level rather than at the university level. Assuming they're adequately qualified, I'd prefer that students be able to choose which university they attend based on the quality of the education they believe they'll receive, rather than the one with the student union fees they can afford. I suspect I agree with Martin about fundamentally why this is an issue for the federal government.

Thu, 24 Mar 2005 - Student Unions #2

Michael has managed to drag himself out of his sick bed to argue with me about Voluntary Student Unionism.

In response to his comment about HECS fees being much higher than union fees and so are opposed by the unions, I have a couple of comments. The first is that according to media reports, union fees are in many places closer to $600/year rather than $200/year that he quotes. Also, since they must be paid upfront (as opposed to HECS which is only paid back when people are able to), they can act as a disincentive to attend university even at much lower levels than HECS. I suspect the real reason that student unions don't oppose up front union fees is the fairly obvious one that the money goes directly to them.

Also, I don't claim that students will pay for services voluntarily, rather that they will voluntarily decide to pay for services they value, rather than do without those services.

Its rather ironic that students who end up working several jobs whilst at Uni to support themselves and family end up being those who do not have the time to use many of the subsidised services their fees go towards. Its like getting the poor to pay tax to subsidise the recreational activities of the middle class.

Perhaps there is a reasonable compromise where some core services such has health, counselling and representation within the university bureaucracy can be funded through a much lower compulsory fee. Payment towards other services such as entertainment, societies, sporting and political clubs would be on a voluntary or usage basis. I see no reason why services which many would view as recreational activities should be subsidised by those uninterested or unable to use them.

Thu, 24 Mar 2005 - Compulsory Student Unionism

Martin talks about compulsory student unionism, supporting the concept by making the analogy with compulsory taxation. I think one major difference is that unlike many taxes, compulsory student union fees are fixed, regardless of the ability to pay. This would be similar to everyone having to pay $20,000 per year in income tax regardless of how much they earned. They're also levied on a section of the community least able to pay money upfront. Why is there such a strong objection by the student unions to HECS fees which don't need to paid until people are able to, and at the same time strong support for up front union fees?

One other observation I would make is that advocates of compulsory union fees have made some very good arguments for why many services currently funded by union fees need to continue. But there appears to be the implication that under voluntary unionism, students will decide not to contribute. Surely if the student unions are correct about the importance of the services, they will be able to convince the majority of the students (who being able to qualify for university courses should be reasonably intelligent) that the fees are going to a good common cause, and that they should continue to pay the fees.

Mon, 14 Mar 2005 - Mt Kosciusko

Since Kelly had not been up to Mt Kosciusko before, we decided to go up to Thredbo for the weekend and walk to the top. Leaving Gizzy and Pipe at my place to keep each other amused, we left early Saturday morning for the 2.5 hour drive to Thredbo.

The weather was absolutely amazing - sunny, a little bit windy and a lot warmer than I had expected. The walk felt a whole lot easier than last time when I went up with Martin when it was very windy, wet and cold. Had lunch with great views towards Charlotte's Pass, though was buzzed at the top a few times by some army helicopters. I think they are the new ones the government recently purchased, and someone was taking them for a joy ride.



Sunday morning we spent walking around Thredbo. Quite a few places there that look really good for a longer stay. We headed back to Canberra via Khancoban and Kiandra, along the narrow mountain roads, along which Kelly had a lot of fun driving.


Wed, 09 Mar 2005 - Cats can fetch!

I'd heard and read that it was possible to teach a cat to fetch, but was rather skeptical that I could teach Pipe to do so. Amazingly he has started playing fetch without much prompting on my part at all. For a while he was carrying his favourite toys around the house in his mouth, and then began dropping them near me. He's always been a bit of a sucker for chasing a ball when you throw it, but recently he's decided its also fun to bring it back again. I haven't needed to give him any food as a reward for bringing his toys back, and if anything, seems rather disinterested in food when playing. Now if only I could teach him not to jump onto the dining room table (or at least not do it when I'm around which is probably the most you can expect from a cat).

Wed, 09 Mar 2005 - Hackfest 0.3 Release

I have just uploaded the 0.3 version of the code for the Linux.conf.au 2005 hackfest competition. Lots more testing is required, but a fairly complex 2 player game is now possible.

Valgrind has been extremely useful in finding bugs in the code. There are some bugs in the code that I think would have hung around for a long time unnoticed without they help of this wonderful debugging tool.

Thu, 03 Mar 2005 - Blog Amusement

Some blog entries are rather amusing even when they don't mean to. Philipp Lenssen comments about a PHP script that comes with the Yahoo Search Web Services SDK. He implies that they have had a programmer who doesn't really understand HTML to write the main PHP script. The programmer's name is Rasmus Lerdorf. I guess Philipp doesn't realise that Rasmus started the PHP project

Wed, 02 Mar 2005 - Life in a cubicle farm

Steven writes about office space for programmers and notes that he and many others like individual offices rather than cubicles. At my first fulltime job, for the most of the time I had an office to myself, and occasionally sharing with one other person. Until then I would have said I definitely preferred to work alone in an office.

When I moved to Linuxcare we had one large cubicle farm (though there were less than 20 employees). Now I actually prefer working in a cubicle, with lowish walls. I think that the open layout really helps with communication between developers. It makes it very easy to ask or answer quick questions. You are more aware of what other people are working on and as a result are more likely to know who or what to ask when you are trying to solve a problem.

Noise can be an issue, and I think its important to have a few rooms set aside where people can concentrate in silence if they need it. Also important is a separate area where groups can have longer discussions away from everyone else. Mikal says there is no way in cubicle-land to mark yourself as busy. But wearing headphones works fairly well - the louder the music the more you want to be left alone :-) Music is also a good way to block out conversations if they get too annoying.

In my current group of coworkers (about 15 people in the group), I think that the open cubicle design works much better than if we were all in separate offices. I do agree with the observation that you need a lot of power and network ports. I have about 5 network and power ports and I still run out of room.