Monthly Archives: October 2009

Recession No More.

This morning brings some good news for America and the world at large. After 4 consecutive quarters of the GDP shrinking, the unemployment rate rocketing to 9.5% and the financial markets flailing around in a complete mess the United States of America have managed to drag themselves up out of the dank depths of recession and post some exceptionally strong growth (given the circumstances). Of course it’s not all sunshine and rainbows over there yet, and Obama has recognised this with his recent speech on the matter:

Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama said U.S. economic growth in the third quarter affirms that the recession is abating, adding that the nation has “a long way to go” to fully recover and reduce unemployment.

He said a Commerce Department report that the economy grew at a 3.5 percent pace in the third quarter, after shrinking for four quarters, is “welcome news and an affirmation that this recession is abating.” It isn’t enough, he added.

“The benchmark I use to measure the strength of our economy is not just whether our GDP is growing, but whether we’re creating jobs, whether families are having an easier time paying their bills, whether our businesses are hiring and doing well,” Obama told business leaders in a speech on the White House grounds.

He’s being cautious in trumpeting this as a victory for himself and his party and this is with good reason. Right now the last thing that any economy needs is uncontrolled growth as that will just get us back in the same situation in a very short period of time. Right now this serves as an indicator that the work the Obama administration has done in order to combat the financial troubles experienced in America worked and the lessons of the past have not gone unheeded. It would seem that all the naysayers about the various stimulus packages will have to take another look at what they’ve said as it appears that Obama’s ideas have worked despite their vitriol.

Hopefully this is the kind of indicator that will prompt companies to start rethinking their strategic direction. For the last few years most of them have been in at least one form of damage control or cost reduction scheme in order to stay in business. This is of course what has lead to the high unemployment figures that are currently plauging the USA. A few quarters of consecutive, small growth will see most businesses rework their directions from “staying alive” back to business as usual and this will easily be tracked in the unemployment rate. In fact the last 3 months have seen a drop in the unemployment rate of 0.2%. It’s not much, but it’s definitely a start.

For as long as the GFC has been in effect I’ve always been very skeptical about how long its effects would last. Sure when you tallied up the dollar amounts that were lost or “potential loses” the situation looked extremely grim, much worse than the great depression. The knowledge of past recessions however let us ride through this with a few bruises but wiser for the experience. One good thing that’s come of this is tighter regulation of the banks in the USA, something which could have prevented this disaster from happening in the first place.

Overall this is great news for the world at large. When the giant of America was toppled by its own system the world rightly went into panic. After battling naysayers, unwilling congress critters and the scathing eye of the media Obama has won himself a hard fought victory for all of America and this will resonate with the public.

Like my fellow blogger said, he’s going to have no trouble coasting into re-election come 2012.

Death By Three Strikes.

I often wonder what goes into formulating some of the laws that end up getting passed in various governments around the world. Some are done with truly altruistic intentions such as Obama’s universal health care plan for all Americans (taking note that 62% of bankruptcy filings are due to medical bills) whilst others seem to be based on the need to appease the lobbyists. It would seem that for some reason that the legislators of Europe have been watching far too much baseball whilst being pestered by copyright holders the world over:

In the EU, the amendment, which would protect against 3-strikes laws by requiring due judicial process to occur before any sanction (such as cutting off Internet access), has been substantially watered down. Meanwhile, in France the Constitutional Court has ruled in favor of a slightly modified version of HADOPI – their legislation which includes a 3-strikes sanction.

On Tuesday, the Parliament gave up on Amendment 138, which had been voted on twice by the assembly, gaining a majority both times. The amendment was supposed to protect the rights of citizens from being treated as guilty upon the accusations of an industry group, and punished based on the same. It read;

Applying the principle that no restriction may be imposed on the fundamental rights and freedoms of end-users, without a prior ruling by the judicial authorities, notably in accordance with Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union on freedom of expression and information, save when public security is threatened in which case the ruling may be subsequent.

Instead, they are now considering a version which does not guarantee the right to an effective and timely judicial review.

When I first heard about the “three strikes” rule that some governments were considering I didn’t think it was a great idea to begin with. Whilst I’m not a rabid anti-copyright supporter (I believe there is a place for it however it needs to be reworked for today’s world) the idea of a copyright holder being able to submit complaints against an Internet user and have them disconnected without any fair process is something I couldn’t support. It had been voted down several times in the past and I had hoped that it was dead in the water. However it appears that whoever is behind driving this legislation home is not going to give up that easily. Truly it would seem that we might be shifting from the war on drugs to the war on copyright infringement (and we all know how effective these wars are, don’t we?).

No politician would want to be seen as weak on people deemed to be criminals so resistance to the three strikes idea has been weak. Sure there’s the usual suspects in the Pirate Party and the socialist parties (oh no the communists are back!) but there was one small ray of opposition that went almost completely unnoticed. Sure it wasn’t directly targeted at the three strikes rule, but it nullifies it all the same:

Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications has made 1-megabit broadband Web access a legal right, YLE, the country’s national broadcasting company, reported on Wednesday.

According to the report, every person in Finland (a little over 5 million people, according to a 2009 estimate) will have the right of access to a 1Mb broadband connection starting in July. And they may ultimately gain the right to a 100Mb broadband connection.

Just more than a year ago, Finland said it would make a 100Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015. Wednesday’s announcement is considered an intermediate step.

Finland isn’t a large country by any standards but they are still very technologically progressive nation. Their broadband penetration is the 12th highest in the world smashing Australia and New Zealand (who even have a higher GDP than Finland!). It makes sense then that such a nation would take a stance on such idiocratic laws by making Internet a human right, since no one will argue with them doing this (what’s the point with trying to strong arm a small nation like that?) and they can serve as a spearhead for other countries to follow suit. I’m rightly impressed with Finland on this one and I hope the other members of the European Union take notice.

Let’s not forget that our little brother across the Tasman tried this kind of shenanigans just over 6 months ago. The legislation was shot down in a blaze of glory but that didn’t stop them from trying to work it into another form to get it passed. I fail to see the motivation for bringing the policy into New Zealand (I hesitate to point fingers at the minister for commerce Simon Power trying to appease the copyright industry) but the reformed policy did address many of the issued raised. Still it lacked a coherent due process and much of the responsibility remained with the ISP. In essence they were creating more work for the ISPs whilst adding no value, angering their customers all to attempt to stop people from infringing on other’s copyrights.

The problem really isn’t the medium that the people are using to infringe on copyright as it was happening long before the Internet was commonplace. Ever make a mix tape of your favourite tracks for your friends? Infringement. Ever record a TV show off using your Betamax recorder? Infringement. What the rights holders are afraid of now is that the ability to infringe is easy, promiscuous and socially acceptable. I’m not going to lie and say that it isn’t a threat to their business models because it is, since anyone who’s inclined can get their product for practically nothing. However, their defending of their rights is the wrong way to go about getting these people back as paying customers.

For the most part many people will get their music and movies via nefarious means because its easy. I can’t count the number of times I’ve struggled for hours with various licensing systems of products to try and get them to work properly. It’s all too easy to hit up your favourite torrent engine and just find a crack for it to fix the problem whilst I wait several weeks for the vendor to get back to me. Right now the value perceived in the product and the risk associated with infringement is so low that paying for the product doesn’t seem worth it. If the rights holders want to weather this storm they need to come up with ways of making the legitimate products more attractive to users than their pirated counterparts, something I’ve blogged about before.

There’s also the problem with copyright holders abusing the court system in order to try and make examples of people who they believe have infringed on their rights. The Internet is a dynamic beast and the methods used to identify people have thus far proved to be highly inaccurate. Companies like MediaSentry have been used in the past to try and identify copyright infringers with highly controversial results. Indeed such companies have shown their dislike for anyone using the technology, even legitimately, by employing such tactics as automated DDOS attacks in order to appease their corporate overlords. It is then much easier for the rights holders to lobby for such policy such as the three strikes rule, since they can then circumvent that whole messy process of gathering evidence.

Policy like this is a band aid solution to a much wider problem that the copyright holders are trying ignore in the hopes that they can cling to business models that no longer work with technological revolutions. This is not a new phenomenon either and for over 100 years they’ve fought tooth and nail against anything that threatens to change the status quo. Its no wonder that once it became easy and low risk that people started infringing en mass, we’ve had 100 years of being stifled by these companies and now people are starting to talk with their wallets. Hopefully the rights holders will bleed enough to make innovation instead of litigation seem like best path for profit.

Freedom of Speech, Not Liability.

There’s often terms that are used so much that their true meaning gets confused, diluted or just plain forgotten. For the most part though these are colloquial expressions and you can derive the meaning of them from the context in which they are used as long as you have the same linguistic base like Latin. One of the most misunderstood terms is that of freedom of speech, I.E. the innate human right that decrees we are all allowed to freely speak our minds without interference from any other party. What people often mistake this for however, is that such a right absolves them from any responsibility for what they may say.

Whilst the legislation varies from nation to nation for the most part no one can legally stop you from saying anything to anyone. Australia’s stance on the freedom of speech is somewhat backward as the constitution makes no explicit references to either freedom of speech or expression, and in fact it was only recently (around 15 years or so) that the Australian High Court recognised that the constitution had an implied right of “freedom of political communication”, which only protects individuals from the government. This can be blamed for the most part on the lack of any kind of freedom of speech case being brought before the courts that didn’t have some kind of political bent and possibly the lack of a document similar to the United States Bill of Rights (which funnily enough is actually a limitation of government power, not an empowerment of the individual as many believe. Another common misconception). Despite this the freedom still seems to be enjoyed by Australians due to the lack of clear law either way.

Freedom of speech usually comes into the spotlight when a party is involved in a defamation case and for the most part the legislation is on the side of freedom of speech. If what you’re saying is true (or in fact, you believed it was true at the time) then you have a defence against any litigation brought before you. If however you were knowingly spouting tripe then you can be held accountable for your actions. This doesn’t stop people and corporations from using litigation as a means of trying to silence people although the whistle-blower legislation provides protection for some, but not all. In essence the situation in Australia is mixed due to the lack of clear definitions in legislation, but that doesn’t stop the principal from being almost identical to it’s American counterparts.

As usual my rant is directed mostly at the uniformed masses that seem to patrol the Internet these days. I’ve been through countless online mediums where the term freedom of speech is trotted out as a defence against particularly reprehensible behaviour. You can say whatever you want, but we have the right to make you responsible for what you say. The waters are a little muddy on whether the anonymity of the Internet should be kept as barrier to trying to discover who is responsible for their comments¹ but we’ll soon have a definitive answer on that.

With freedom comes responsibilities and what I’ve said today can be applied to any human right. I’m reminded of when I was back in college and another student found out that it was a human right to sing at any time. He then proceeded to wax on how he could do this during final year exams. Doing this would have seen him removed from the exam leaving his rights, but not his dignity, in tact.

And now I can point anyone who gets it wrong to this page, saving me a good 5 minutes ranting at them about the differences between freedom and responsibility.

¹Personal opinion: it shouldn’t be. I don’t believe someone should be revealed publicly however their identity should be protected from released court documents. Of course this depends on the situation as someone saying “Person X loves eating zebras” is quite different from “Person X has weaponized plutonium in their backyard”.

Attack of the Aion Midgets.

You know I’m always excited when character creators come out that let you tweak the smallest detail on your characters. Whilst not everyone is going to notice that your character has blue eyes or their unique facial structure there’s always a small sense of pride that what you’ve created is unique in some way. Such in depth customization of your avatar have only become commonplace recently, as the time and effort put in to making such a system is often overlooked by a gamer who’s only intent is to get into the game and play it. There’s also the possibility, a la Oblivion, that no matter what you do your character still comes out looking like they’ve got something horribly wrong with them.

Primarily in depth character customization has stayed well away from the realms of MMORPGs, and with good reason. Players of this genre are masters of the min-max ideals and will take any advantage in order to get ahead of anyone else. With games like World of Warcraft this was usually around tradeskills and if you were going to roll a new character, the race as well. However in Aion there are no benefits for being a particular race or having a certain trade, but there is an advantage in height. In essence a smaller character is much harder to click on, and when your primary game focus is player vs player combat (well PvPvE, but that’s another post in itself) it gives you quite the advantage if your enemy has trouble trying to target you. This was an often lamented issue back in the beginnings of WoW with the Gnome race.

So this of course lead to around 50% of the player base creating characters that were exceptionally small in order to gain a small advantage over their larger sized adversaries. I’m sure the developers gave people this much freedom as it allowed them to only have 2 races whilst letting people differentiate themselves out as they see fit (some of the options are distinctly dwarven/gnomish, like braided beards). However the majority of characters aren’t of this persuasion, they’re just scaled down versions of what the player wanted them to be.

I had no issue with the differing sizes in World of Warcraft mostly because when you opted to choose a gnome you were stuck with the look. It proved to work out well with the majority of the WoW population choosing either Human or Night Elf, as they wanted a good looking character and PvP benefits be damned. In Aion however the unlimited creation possibilities allow users to just have shrunk versions of their perfected selves which takes away the significance of the sacrifice that had to be made when other games gave you a hit box advantage like this. Additionally a world that is populated with characters that are either normal height or tiny versions of themselves breaks any feel of immersion that the game tries to generate, especially when the animations for running have to sped up significantly in order to make them move appropriately according to their speed. At least WoW had some transitional races (Human -> Dwarf -> Gnome) which are (not-so) surprisingly missing in the world of Aion.

It is, in short, a joke.

There’s one simple solution to this problem, and that’s to make the hit box the same size regardless of your character. I know this isn’t currently the case in Aion (trying to click those pesky little people has proved frustrating so far) but it would be an easy change and would eliminate the need for users to needlessly butcher their otherwise beautiful characters. I can understand some people wanting to play an avatar of small stature and fully support them in doing so, but the ridiculous abuse of the system just pokes fun at a system designed to create unique avatars and nothing more.

Am I just having a whinge about a small aspect of an otherwise good game? Probably, and I guess my anger is more directed at the players doing this than anyone else since they’re now choosing their appearance based on advantages rather than they want to look. Or maybe I have a thing against playing in a field of short people, who knows. :P

Caving Into The Skeptical Stereotype.

You know there are times when I’ve caved into a stereotype just because it was easier to work within those boundaries than trying to define my own. I remember some years ago being told that I took quite a keen interest in my appearance and had myself labelled as a metrosexual. Initially I fought back against this since I hadn’t really defined myself in such a way, still trying to grasp onto the last bit of teenage rebellion that I had in me. After a while though I realised that the label brought with it ideals that I found easy to align with, so I just went with it.

More recently though I’ve been fighting with the idea of caving into becoming a full blown ravenous skeptic. I’ve blogged numerous times in the past about the sceptical movement and how I support their ideas whilst criticizing their technique but it’s becoming more and more apparent that it might just be easier to join the cause and cave into the stereotype. Whilst the benefits of doing so are great (indeed joining their ranks would generate more blog traffic, possibly open up the opportunity to speak at their conventions and give me daily blog fodder) there’s still that little teenage voice of angst whispering at the back of my mind telling me not to conform to their standards. So where has all this cognitive dissonance come from?

Winding the clock back 3 weeks finds myself living the life of luxury on Turtle Island, lapping it up with my wife. I’d be lying if I said the people I was there with were exactly my kind of people, it was far from that. Indeed the majority of them were in their late 30s to 40s and many of them were highly successful people (in fact one of them was the CIO for Westfield Corporation) so the conversations often drifted far from areas I could talk about. One warm night having dinner on the beach the topic drifted to stories of how we all met, and one of them happened to involve a tale about homeopathic medicine. Fortunately the story teller was a cardiovascular surgeon and didn’t believe the stuff would work (and in truth was only trying it because he was at wits end and had resigned to just living with the mild shoulder pain it was trying to fix) but another couple perked up saying that they regularly saw a homeopathic doctor. Instantly two voices cried out in my head: the first telling me to shoot down homeopathy in a blaze of skeptical glory and the other warning me that that kind of conversation wasn’t going to win me any friends, something which on a private island designed for relaxation wouldn’t be looked on kindly from the other guests.

In the end I kept my mouth shut, but that didn’t make the skeptical voice inside my head go away. I quickly came to realise that whilst there’s a giant community of skeptics and endless support from the scientific community in the end being a skeptic isn’t going to win you any friends, save for those who are skeptics themselves. The fact that dulled the sceptical voice in my head was that whilst the couple said they visited such a doctor not once did they actually recommend anyone else go and see one over a regular GP and as such the only harm they were doing was to themselves. If they had started spruiking such nonsense to everyone else I don’t think the skeptical voice would’ve kept quiet and I’d probably be telling a completely different story.

There’s also the fact that the Global Atheist Convention is coming to Melbourne next year. Since I have many friends who would identify themselves as either Atheist or Skeptical I’ve already had a couple invitations to come down for the weekend and spend a day or two touring the event. I am tempted to, since many of the people lined up to speak are interesting in their own right and the Atheist convention may be my only chance to see them speak in Australia for a long time to come. Plus I’ve always wanted to try my hand as a blogging mogul running around a convention trying to break stories to the world like a real journalist :)

I think this internal debate will rage on for quite some time and I don’t see any side of it winning out. I’ll stick with my idea of the casual skeptic who makes it their job to point out bullshit when it has the chance to do harm to others whilst quietly letting people do their own thing. Of course you regular readers here will always be told that you should think for yourselves, but you’ve come to expect that of me over the past months that I’ve spent rambling at you ;)

Left 4 Dead 2: Another Nanny State Fatality.

Sometimes even when bad things happen there’s that little bit of light at the end of the tunnel that will keep you going. I guess somewhere deep in my head I had the idea that the Australian Classification Board would see how silly it was being denying Left 4 Dead 2 a classification in Australia and thereby forcing us to have a completely butchered product. Turns out they’re pretty consistent with their rulings and the appeal has fallen on deaf ears:

After the Australian Classification Review Board first refused to classify Valve’s zombie first-person-shooter Left 4 Dead 2, Valve appealed the government’s decision.Valve’s Zombie shooter was refused classification, which means it can’t be made commercially available in the country. Not quite the same as a banning, but it has the same effect.

The company’s appeal to overturn the Board’s earlier decision has been refused, and the original, unedited version will not be sold in Australia later this fall when the game launches there.

As Valve told us earlier, the version of Left 4 Dead 2 submitted to the Australian government for rating is “the adjusted version.” This version has been rated and will be commercially sold in Australia.

The cut down version of the game sticks in my craw for a couple reasons. The first is that it highlights a critical flaw in the Australian classification system which can trace its roots back to one man, Michael Atkins, who in the past has used extreme hyperbole to defend his positions. Here’s an excerpt from a charming letter he wrote to the Adelaide Advertiser back in March:

Their vote is hardly likely to hinge on the “right” to score gamer points… by running down and killing pedestrians on the pavement, raping a mother and her two daughters, blowing oneself up in a market, cutting people in half with large calibre shells, injecting drugs to win an athletics event or killing a prostitute to recover the fee one just paid her (Welcome to the world of R18+ computer games).

Those of my constituents who are refugees have been subjected to the practical instead of the virtual suffering that R18+ nerds seek to inflict for their gratification on the computer screen.

Probably the worst thing about this situation is that the seat he’s in, the just over a decade old seat of Croydon, is a safe labor seat with him winning 74% of the vote in the last election. If it was a marginal seat we might have seen a swing against him on an issue like this but for the time being this man with his hyperbolic rhetoric and conservative viewpoints are keeping the mature Australian gamers behind the rest of the developed world. He uses an appeal to emotion to say that he represents people who’ve endured the horrors of R18+ games for real, and that’s the reason why he’s opposing it. If we’re to take his view to its logical conclusion does that mean every other developed country which has such a rating for these games is encouraging behaviour that is seen in these games? Although I should hardly expect any kind of sense from him, especially when he’s mislead parliament in the past.

Secondly what does coddling all the gamers in Australia net for society at large? Since the rest of the developed world has such a rating and have yet to descend into an anarchist orgy of drugs, sex and violence I can’t see how introducing a rating would do any damage to the Australian public. In fact present research shows that violent video games have no link to real world violence and in fact since games have become more popular in the last 2 decades violence amongst the young has decreased. The end affect is that the Australian gamer receives an inferior product or none at all, removing income from Australian game distributors and encouraging more nefarious means of acquiring what they want.

In fact I’m going to detail one way us Australians can get the game we deserve. First you’ll need yourself a Steam account and a friend in the USA. Get your friend to buy a copy of Left 4 Dead 2 and gift it to you and voila! You now have yourself an as intended from the developer copy of Left 4 Dead 2, thereby circumventing Australia’s draconian classification scheme. There are of course other ways, but they’re left an as exercise to the reader.

The backwards view that Australia is taking with respect to a R18+ rating for games is a black mark that we can easily erase if a couple people started practicing critical thinking. The evidence is on the table and their flat out refusal to acknowledge it shows a purposeful cognitive delusion, something that I can’t stand for when they’re supposed to be representing the people. I know one day we’ll see the end of this, and it can never come soon enough.

Anyone got a friend in the US I can talk to? ;)

In it for the Tech.

You know there are times when I look back on my life and there seems to be a common theme to most of  the hobbies or activities that I took up over the years: they all had some kind of strange technological bent. Take for instance my foray into the world of music, something I was involved in as a hobby for around 2 years. It started off with just trying to solve a problem for a friend but then lead me into the world of Trance music, something which I still revel in today.

It was an odd experience for me, getting into this foreign world of creativity and production. I’d been involved in theatre for several years although I never thought I was any good at it nor was it ever on my mind that I would make a career out of it. Still my involvement had me involved with a lot of creative people and as it became apparent that I was some kind of geek in the making they turned to me with their questions on the bits of tech they’d use to aid in the creative process. Once I had my hands on some of these pieces of hardware something stirred inside me, which at the time I took to mean that I should try my hand at music production.

Queue several long nights spent in front of the computer screen with various programs open in the hopes of creating some form of music. Initially I started out just randomly plodding away in FL Studio (then called Fruity Loops) trying to learn the ins and outs of the program like I had done with any other windows application. After a year or so of doing this I thought I had progressed enough to purchase some actual hardware and this lead me to blow quite a wad of cash on a Roland MC-909 which was in essence a hardware version of FL Studio. I spent many long nights fiddling with this and even brought it to a couple parties, although I’m sure I never unlocked more than 10% of what it was capable of.

I haven’t indulged in this hobby for quite some time now since I’ve been distracted with many other things but my love of trance music has remained and more recently it seems the desire to create as well. I found myself yesterday afternoon losing an hour or so just casually browsing through the Korg website oggling the various synths, samplers and squencers. It then dawned on me, was I just in this for the hardware?

A cursory glance around my house shows a pretty obvious trend. In the main room there are 4 computers, a modded Xbox 360, a Playstation 3, my new Gigabyte T1028, a Canon EOS-400D and several computer components. The story doesn’t change much in the other rooms either with computer hardware littering the closet shelves. Realistically my interest in music probably stemmed from the fact that the bits of tech they use are genuinely complicated parts of machinery and the engineer in me is dying to figure out how they tick. In fact every piece of hardware I’ve described above was bought with its original purpose in mind, only to be modified for some other nefarious purpose.

Casting my mind back through all my previous hobbies its always stemmed from an interest in the tech that they use. Maybe it was my father sitting me in front of a computer at the tender age of 4 and just letting me have at it or maybe it’s just the gen Y in me but the fact remains that a cool piece of tech is a sure fire way to get me interested in something.

It sure does explain why I lost 2 hours one day in wikipedia looking at very light jets ;)

Owning Vs Renting: Facts and Figures.

I see a lot of people these days claim that they’ll never buy a house because it’s a bad idea, usually using the past year of economic turmoil as an excuse for their actions. Similarly with Australia’s housing market in an apparent bubble (that’s been meaning to burst for years if you believe the doom and gloomers) it would seem that it’s impossible for the first home owner to get into the market without ruining themselves financially. As someone who bought his first house 2 years ago when interest rates were rocketing up to 10 year highs and bought the second just this year I know exactly how the market is functioning and what the causes of this so called “affordability” crisis are. Today I want to step through some of the insights I’ve gained into market and why the media reports are, as always, misleading.

Hitting up the ABS for some data on house prices I found that they haven’t updated the price data in almost a year, leaving me with real figures that don’t accurately reflect the current situation. Still I’d hazard a guess that the swing couldn’t be more than 5% either way, otherwise we’d be hearing about it in the news. Taking that all into consideration here’s the median house price for the eight capital cities of Australia (in 1000’s):

  • Sydney:           465
  • Melbourne:   385
  • Brisbane:        398
  • Adelaide:       355
  • Perth:              420
  • Hobart:           300
  • Darwin:           445
  • Canberra:       455

You can see there’s a wild amount of swing between the different cities and that’s with good reason. Canberra for instance is filled with public servants who all have steady, above average incomes and this is reflected in the housing prices. Places like Hobart and Adelaide owe their lower prices to the lower population and hence lower average incomes. So what do these figures tell us? Well typically one city or state will be reported on and you can see how that would lead you to believe that all of Australia is unaffordable, especially when you look at say Sydney. Secondly the median figure tells us that 50% of the houses sold in that quarter were below that price, and the other 50% above. So whilst the median price might look rather scary it is in fact far from it and this is why reporting like this which is using the average price can make things look far more scary than they really are. It only takes a few outliers to completely ruin the average price as an indicator of affordability.

I’ve often talked with friends about the house prices in Australia being a crisis of desire and not affordability. Todays generation Y grew up predominately in suburbs with an easy going lifestyle and are seeking the same thing for themselves when they move out. The problem is those closer in suburbs now attract a premium as the urban sprawl has made them far more central than they were when the gen Y’s parents bought into the market. Taking this into consideration the first home buyer should not be looking at median priced homes and should be looking to the mortgage belts if they want to step into the market. It might not be what they want and so they choose to rent seeking to keep their lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with this, the issue I have is that most of them throw their arms up in the air and call houses unaffordable when really they’re being unreasonable with their demands.

There are also some more financially inclined among us who believe that renting is more financially sound than owning. Now this is a complicated idea and the answer can vary greatly depending on someone’s situation. However there’s a little bit of comparison we can do to get a feel for how right or wrong this idea might be.

Having a quick look through Allhomes I found I could acquire a typical 3 bedroom house for anywhere from $350,000 to $400,000+, but there were quite a few homes available for somewhere in the middle. Checking the rental market for the same area (I’m using Holt as an example) a 3 bedroom place could be expected to rent for $380 per week. Now the one assumption I’m going to use is that property price as a general rule of thumb increases by about 7% annually, or it doubles every 10 years (see here for some data on the matter). So in the buying vs renting argument over 10 years you’d have:

Renters:

  • Total rent paid: $197,600

Buyers:

  • Deposit of 5%: $18,750
  • Purchasing costs (stamp duty, LMI, legal, etc) of 6%: $22,500
  • Repayments ($2136/month, principal and interest on 30 year term @ 6%): $256,320
  • Total cost: $297,570

Looking at that it comes out to a difference of around $100,000 over 10 years to own rather than rent which works out at about $200/week. The question is if you are renting, could you use that $100,000 to invest and beat the return gained on the house. If the theory holds true the house you bought is now worth around $750,000 or a capital gain of $375,000. If we knock off the $100,000 of extra money you had to spend since you bought there’s a difference of around $275,000 so the question then becomes, could you do this if you didn’t buy? For most people the answer is no, since Australians aren’t particularly good at saving money. Renting makes fiscal sense if you use the difference in what you spend on a house and what you’d spend on renting to make a return of approximately 7% per annum and don’t spend it. Suddenly the extra $200 per week might not seem so unaffordable.

When you take certain figures being reported by the media it’s always easy to get caught up in the hype. The problem with using a single figure to report on these things is that the real situation is hidden under a layer of equations and interpretations. If you go out there, do your research and curtail your desire you will see that the Australian housing market is no where near as bad as the media makes it out to be. I bought a house at a time of sky rocketing interest rates and everyone screaming that the housing market was about to go bust. Here I am 2 years later and the bubble has yet to burst and they’re all still saying the same thing.

Don’t believe everything you read kids.

Ares I-X, Delayed!

They say there’s no good fishing story that doesn’t have at least one lie in it and the same can be said for space missions and delays. Look at practically any space mission and you’re more than likely to find that it ran over time for one reason or another and really it’s to be expected. Space travel is still on the bleeding edge of human capability and even routine missions can have unknowns in them that will cause the critical path to be affected. It should then come as no surprise that NASA’s latest endeavour, the Ares I-X which forms part of the Constellation program, has suffered the same fate:

A faulty part in the steering system for NASA’s new Ares I-X rocket has delayed the booster’s trek to its Florida launch pad by at least a day as engineers work to fix the glitch.

The rocket, a suborbital version of NASA’s new Ares I booster designed to launch astronauts into orbit and ultimately back to the moon, was slated to roll out to Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center Monday for a planned Oct. 27 test launch. But a malfunctioning hydraulics component at the base of the towering, 327-foot (100-meter) tall rocket has stalled that plan, NASA spokesperson George Diller told SPACE.com.

“It’s at least a day [of delay], but it’s still kind of a developing story,” Diller said. “We’ll have to see how things go for us.”

Now I’m usually one of the first to fawn all over whatever NASA is doing at any point in time but the Ares I-X booster is a rare moment where I question what the heck they think they’re doing. For the most part the rocket is nothing like the final Ares I booster will be like, namely with the missing 5th part of the first stage and the second and third stages being just mock ups. I can understand the Orion capsule on top being a dummy payload, but for the rest of it I’m raising a cautious eyebrow as to how much useful data such a launch can gather.

The wiki article on the booster shows what NASA thinks they’ll get out of this mission:

Ares I-X will be the first test flight of a launch vehicle like the Ares I. The test flight objectives include:

  • Demonstrating control of a dynamically similar vehicle using control algorithms similar to those used for Ares I.
  • Performing an in-flight separation/staging event between an Ares I-similar First Stage and a representative Upper Stage.
  • Demonstrating assembly and recovery of an Ares I-like First Stage at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
  • Demonstrating First Stage separation sequencing, and measuring First Stage atmospheric entry dynamics, and parachute performance.
  • Characterizing the magnitude of integrated vehicle roll torque throughout First Stage flight.

The word “similar” used in the first two points is what makes me uncomfortable with the whole endeavour. They’ve publicly acknowledged that the Ares I-X is significantly different from the final flight hardware and that this particular stack will never be built again. The next two points demonstrate that they’re just trying to test out the construction and roll out process of the rocket, something they could do without actually launching anything. The last point is somewhat important, but it is lost when 80% of the mission seems completely pointless. Many of the secondary objectives mentioned could also be performed on a completed Ares I stack so the question remains: why the heck are they doing this?

For the most part I believe it is to show that they’re making progress with George W.’s vision for space exploration. Gone are the high budgets of the late 60’s and the focus of an entire nation, nowadays it’s all about what the government is spending on and what the public is getting out of it. The current rocket has been in development for about 5 years and it’s hard to go that long on developing something without showing that you’ve actually done some work. The Ares I-X is then a demonstration to appease the political overlords and hopefully draw some press so that the rest of the constellation program doesn’t get completely canned. Whilst I can appreciate the situation NASA has been put in I still would’ve liked to have seen what kind of delay they would’ve had to go through in order to launch a fully stacked Ares I right off the bat instead of the boondoggle they’re rolling out now.

It makes them look even worse when a company that has been built up from the ground from scratch will be launching a fully functional rocket with similar capabilities to the Ares I sometime soon. I am of course referring to the Falcon-9 from SpaceX, and it really demonstrates how bloated with bureaucracy has become when they can do the work of thousands with just 800 employees.

I guess I’m just nostalgic for the old days when space was seen as something of a national pride and the bureaucracy was kept to a minimum. I’m still hoping they continue down the Ares path however as the the Ares V will be a phenomenal power house unlike nothing we’ve seen before. However these kinds of demonstrations do the project’s timeline no good and I’m glad that it is the only one of its kind planned.

Internet Filter: Credit Where it Wasn’t Due.

It wasn’t too long ago when I found myself scouring the University of Canberra and the Australian National University for courses to launch myself into a future career. After deciding on the UC course I had been told that it was certified and would count towards accreditation with no less than 3 professional associations in the fields of ICT and engineering. They were: Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), Engineer’s Australia (EA) and the Australian Computer Society. Initially I thought that this would be a great boon for my career, as nothing is more important than who you know right? Turns out that one of these professional bodies that I could have sought membership with has a few wires crossed:

The Australian Computer Society has released a report that flags conditional support to ISP-based internet filtering from a technical standpoint, based on a series of boxes that need to be checked before giving the scheme the green light.

Six experts from the ACS said that filtering of the internet is plausible, but suggested a number of steps, summarised below, that the Federal Government needs to first address.

“Filtering alone is unlikely to adequately address cyber security issues or significantly impact those who deliberately produce, distribute or search for illegal material,” said Australian Computer Society chairman and president Kumar Parakala.

The full report from the ACS is available here. Whilst they do pick up on a couple of points that require much more consideration such as the transparency of process and actual purpose of the filter they casually gloss over the point of network degredation. Out of the 19 pages of the report approximately 3 lines are dedicated to the important subject of sending Australia back about 5 years in terms of broadband speeds:

5.5

In this situation there could be enough performance in the filtering solution to ensure that the filter would not create a bottleneck and significantly affect the performance of the ISP.

5.6

  • not all applications work well with a proxy server and so the performance of the ISP can degrade;

Considering that the best (almost ludicrous) estimates had the filter pegged at slowing Internet speeds by 3% and most realistic estimates are closer to 30% the report gives the impression that the only problems the filter faces are policy based. Whilst the majority of the problems stem from the fact that a mandatory filter is in itself bad policy the apparent endorsement from a technical standpoint of a solution that is verging on moronic makes the ACS look out of touch with the world of ICT. Whilst there does appear to be some good technical people behind the document I can’t in good faith endorse it or the media attention that it has received. In fact all the reports on the article have taken the same approach and only mentioned the policy ideas, furthering my point that the report was a little short sighted. “Conditional” support is not what the voting public will see and it’s not what Conroy will use in his rhetoric on the subject.

With so many unknowns being thrown around at this point in time the ACS would have been far better placed to remain agnostic on the filter and should have taken the stance that the filter in it’s current form can’t be implemented until the specifications and policies surrounding it are finalized. This would have allowed them to make the same points that they have already whilst staying at arms length, saving themselves from embarrassment when the filter finally falls on its face. Right now they make some good points but have lost a lot of credibility with those who it represents.

Times like this it makes me happy that I was a lazy graduate and didn’t sign up with associations like this. Although if I did cancelling my membership might have had a bit more impact than just lamenting it on my blog. Bah, they’ve got enough egg on their face as it is :)