Monthly Archives: June 2010

Artificial Barriers to Progression.

This blog is one of the first things I have to get done in the morning before I can work on anything else. It’s a strange habit I developed over a year ago when I found myself with quite a few things to write about and decided that I’d slog through them at one idea per day until I ran out of material. Today, whilst my blog posts are longer and generally a lot more thought out, the core idea behind them doesn’t seem to come as easily as it once did. This very post had me scrounging around for a couple hours to find something to write on until it finally dawned on me.

You see this blog is a kind of artificial barrier to me achieving any goals that I might have set forth for the day. There’s really no compelling reason for me to do this before anything else other than for the joy of it or the small hope of Internet fame. Realistically if I didn’t write a post today nothing bad would happen apart from me disappointing a few of my lunchtime readers and the hit count going down for a day. Still I’ve managed to convince myself time and time again that until the post is written, proof read and scheduled I can’t get any meaningful work done as it will sit at the back of my head, constantly nagging away at me until I cave into it.

The concept of artificial barriers isn’t new to me either, as it’s something that I’ve dealt with in many different aspects of my life. Pretty much any endeavor I’ve undertaken has usually come to a point I see myself thinking “If only I had that piece of equipment” or “If only I could do X” and use that as an excuse to shelve a project completely. The barriers themselves really didn’t exist and they were merely an excuse to placate my own inadequacies rather than dealing with them the hard way (I.E. working with what I’ve got). Over time I’ve gotten better at identifying the times when I’m engaging in these games of mental gymnastics with myself, but that hasn’t seen me drop the habit entirely.

It all came to a head last night when I was eying off the new MacBook Pro models that Apple has released. I’ve long said that it would probably be my next laptop as I need a mac machine to do the iPhone development work I have planned plus I have plans to do a bit of travel in the coming months, and something relatively portable with a bit of grunt would fit the bill nicely. Still in the last month though the amount of development work I’ve done would total about 4 hours or so, as I’ve spent the better parts of my weekend playing games and generally avoiding spending any of my free time working. In the back of my head though the excuse has always been “I need to start coding the handset application now” which leads me down a spiral of analysis ultimately ending with “I’ve got an iPhone, I should do that first”. Buying the MacBook rubs up against the fiscally responsible side of me who tells me I don’t really need the device, and hence we arrive at yet another artificial barrier to me progressing towards my goals (I could quite easily just code up a Windows Mobile version to get the infrastructure in).

I’ve picked on people in the past for doing this as well because really you have no excuse apart from some internal desire that’s manifested itself as this artificial barrier. Primarily I see this when people tell me they’re not happy where they’re working but once you dig a little deeper you find that they are quite comfortable where they are, and the idea of facing the unknown is far more scary than dealing with their current set of issues. For my current artificial barriers it would seem to come from a deep rooted belief that all the work I do is crap, and I shouldn’t bother with it anyway. This could also be because I just scrapped the last 2 months worth of work after talking to someone who’s in the industry (and gave me great insight without even knowing it) and I’m faced with yet another giant wall to overcome, but again it’s not the barrier I’m making myself think it is.

If you’ve managed to get this far into this post let me just say thank you. Whilst this blog is almost entirely self serving (in the fact that I’m really doing this all for myself, although I like to think I’m producing something of worth) this blog post is my way with dealing with the current climate of change that’s surrounding my life. I’ve had quite a hectic month and it doesn’t look like it’s going to settle down anytime soon. Hopefully though once everything settles down I’ll be able to rekindle my passion for starting my own company and bring something to the world that will really be of some worth. There’s nothing more therapeutic for me than making my own weaknesses public as, for some strange reason, it motivates me to work on them. Maybe I’m just some kind of weird exhibitionist in that way… ;)

Game Length, Opportunity Cost and Replay Value.

When I switched from being a salaried employee to a contractor I underwent a paradigm shift in regards to how I spend my time. You see when you charge by the hour you start to think about how much something costs you to do if you do it yourself vs getting someone else to do it. If there’s a solution to a problem and it’s available for less than my current hourly rate then it’s good value for me to get that rather than trying to develop a solution on my own. This also comes back to how I spend my leisure time as it becomes hard to turn off that part of my brain that tells me every hour used purely in the pursuit of leisure is an hour that could be spent generating some income, although I haven’t seemed to have any trouble with that for the past month or so. ;)

The majority of my spare time is spent playing games simply because they’re by far one of the most relaxing activities for me. Additionally the bit of blog fodder that I get from completing one and then writing a review of it (which are some of my most enjoyable posts to write) are yet another benefit of spending my down time immersed in these virtual worlds. Unfortunately though I’m no longer the young 20 something university student I used to be and the amount of time I can spend on games is quite limited when compared to days gone by. Thus, whilst I still find time to cram in an epic gaming session or two every so often, the vast majority of my games are either played out over the course of a month or in a few shorter sessions in a single weekend. I think this is where my love of cinematic games has sprouted from as they’re an intense experience that I could conceivably sit down and play through in one session.

However the gaming community always seems to lament games that have a length that’s shorter than about 20 hours. One great example of this was Heavenly Sword, arguably Sony’s flagship game on it’s only recently debuted PlayStation 3. The hype leading up to the release of the game was nothing short of fever pitch and the demo released about a month prior wowed everyone who played it, even with it’s foreboding that the game itself would be drastically shorter than everyone was used to. On release it became apparent that the game totaled at most about 6~8 hours of game play and the critics slammed it for that very reason. Granted the game had set itself up for this as the hype far outpaced the resulting game but really the length, at least for people like me, wasn’t such a let down as many of the critics would have had us believe.

When time is at a premium game length starts to become something of a concern. It’s for that exact reason why I’ve avoided games like Final Fantasy as whilst they are amongst some of the most highly praised games on Sony’s gaming platform they’re also an incredible time sink, with play times exceeding 40 hours not uncommon. Ah ha! I hear you saying, but you reviewed Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, games with lengths approaching that of the games you said you avoid! OK you got me, there are notable exceptions that I can and will make the effort to play through usually on the backs of raving reviews from friends and the gaming community at large. Still a game like Modern Warfare 2 which packed only 6 hours of game play which I managed to blast through in 2 sittings rates as highly as some of those longer games despite its short length. There is also Heavy Rain of course, but I think everyone knows how much I enjoyed that and I’ve gushed enough about it to last everyone a lifetime :)

I think the crux of the matter is that the opportunity cost for longer games is so high that I have a tendency to shy away from them, lest my hours be wasted. Thankfully in this day and age of instant on access to information I usually have a good feel if a game will be worth it before taking the plunge, but at heart I’m still a completionist and I can’t stand letting games go unfinished. I think that’s the reason why Bayonetta and Red Faction: Guerrilla bug  the hell out of me as they’re just painful enough for me to not want to finish them but at the same time I’d love to get them off my list forever. Still slogging through something that just isn’t fun for completion’s sake doesn’t rate highly on a cost benefit analysis for my time, so I guess I’ll just have to live with that.

There is of course games that have significant amounts of replay value which kind of skew my whole game length argument. Something like Lumines for example probably only has about 6 hours of game play in it total however I still find myself picking up my copy of it from time to time for a 30 minute bash to try and beat my top score. That’s probably more thanks to the genre than anything else as casual games like that tend to have quite short single play throughs however the competition element with a healthy sprinkling of procedural generation makes them almost infinitely replayable, something that the casual gaming market craves.

My point is that for any game you might play the length is somewhat of a subjective metric to use when judging its quality. Certain genres of games will come with expectations of play times such as RPGs being traditionally quite long and cinematics being short, but overall a games length is no measure of its quality. There is of course the argument to be made that a game is too short and therefore omits details or similarly a game that is too long that drags the plot out longer than it really needs to be. Still for a game that’s worth its salt the length seems to barely matter as I’ll remember how I enjoyed my time playing it, not how long.

That probably explains my past addictions to various MMORPGs over the past 5 years….

Shouldn’t Information Transcend Formats?

I just don’t get books. There’s something inherently anti-social about picking one up and plonking yourself down to read a couple chapters as you’re publicly announcing “I’m doing something and I shouldn’t be disturbed”. Still the act of sharing that anti-social experience can be quite social as I’ve had many great experiences discussing the few books that I’ve read over my lifetime. Still I struggle to get through dead trees even when I make an active effort to get through them. My latest victim, The Four Hour Work Week, has been in my backpack for the past 6 months and the last 5 of that have been with around 100 pages to go. For some reason I just can’t be bothered with sitting down and slogging through page after page of the centuries old medium, but that doesn’t mean I don’t crave their content.

After I went through a long time of having not a whole lot to do whilst I was at work I discovered the wonderful world of RSS feeds. Gone was my endless list of poorly organised bookmarks and in its place was a lovely unified view of all those websites I loved to frequent. After fiddling around with a couple installed RSS readers I eventually turned to Google Reader and I haven’t looked back since. Every day I can spin through a couple hundred articles in quick succession with the better ones usually inspiring a blog post or two. I’d say that on average I read about 2~3 books worth of online content per week, possibly double or triple that if I’m elbow deep in research for a particular problem.

So the question remains, why don’t I get books? I know I have a pretty insatiable hunger for information on various subjects and the bite sized chunks I get online, whilst very well suited to my almost permanently Internet connected life, are usually too small to get a decent understanding of something. Additionally I remember one of my college English teachers telling me that my generation was apparently the last one that would have any respect for the medium as the generations who followed us would get all their information from online sources. Whilst I don’t agree with her vision completely (thanks in part to the whole Twilight phenomenon, I mean they did read the books right?) it does seem that when it comes to getting information on a particular subject I don’t even think about visiting a library, let alone picking up a book.

The answer then is most likely one of convenience.  I can, on any device capable of browsing the Internet, open up a page with a dedicated stream of information tailored exactly to my interests. Books on the other hand are usually only aimed at one subject and unfortunately require me to carry them with me when I want to read them. I thought the answer would lie in eBooks but unfortunately they seem to suffer the same fate as their dead tree companions. You could probably put this down to a short attention span when it comes to absorbing information as all online content is aimed at being consumed in less than 5 minutes and trying to read a book like that just doesn’t seem to work for me (or anyone else I’ve seen read books for that matter).

There are some notable exceptions though. Way back in the middle of my time at university a good friend of mine handed me a copy of the first book in the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. After sharing a love for the revamped Battlestar Galactica he handed me the book saying that if I liked that kind of sci-fi, I’d love this. I hadn’t read an entire book in well over 3 years so initially I struggled to get into it. The entire trilogy took me a year to read but I savoured every last word of it, often stealing an hour away from my classes to sit on the university concourse to bathe in the warm summer sun whilst my mind was firmly planted in this epic space opera. I have yet to be that captivated by a book again as my last attempt to read another of Hamilton’s other works had me 20 pages in before I was told I was reading the wrong book in the trilogy (that’s the last time I trust you, Dave).

Maybe as I get more time to myself I’ll find the time for books. Right now though my life is filled with so many other activities that getting through a book always feels like a chore that doesn’t get me very far as it doesn’t usually satisfy a pressing want or need that I have at the time. With most of my subsequent free time spent playing through an enormous backlog of games (which just spurred an idea for a post tomorrow, stay tuned! ;) ) books are one of those things that I’ll let slip by the wayside. Watching them rush past as the torrent of the Internet sweeps them away.

Android Going Nintendo on Apple.

I haven’t really blogged a lot about Android handsets mostly because I’ve never owned one of the beasts. My checkered past with the dominant supplier of hardware for the devices had me casting skeptical looks their way for the first year of Android’s existence but it’s become quite clear that since then they’ve managed to release some solid hardware backed up by  ever improving software in both the platform and the applications that are being developed for it. The current Android darling (HTC EVO 4G) has been selling out with an almost Apple like fever across the United States. It seems that the Android platform has finally hit critical mass, and people are starting to take notice.

The most notable data points I have to support this view is the often quote number of Android handsets sold per day. Back in February Google announced, much to everyone’s surprise, that they were shipping around 60,000 Android handsets per day. It took another 3 months before they’d quote that same metric again where upon they stunned everyone by saying that their shipped volumes had grown to over 100,000 per day. Two days ago saw them quote this metric once again albeit with the staggering figure of 160,000 sold per day:

Android cofounder and Google vice president Andy Rubin just announced at the Droid X event that 160,000 Android devices are being sold per day. That’s up sharply from last month when Google announced that 100,000 Android devices were being activated each day.

As recently as February the number was just 60,000 per day. The Droid X will begin shipping on July 15 for $200. Given how hot the EVO is selling on Sprint, we can probably expect another jump in those Android sales numbers soon.

If you take those numbers as an average then you get Android sales of approximately 14.4 million per quarter. Compare that to the most recent figures from Apple on their iPhone at about 8.8 million per quarter then it becomes clear that Android is now a very serious competitor in the mobile space. Apple might not be worried though and there’s a good reason for that, they’re taking a leaf out of Nintendo’s book (hear me out here people).

You see long before the Wii was released Nintendo was struggling to keep up with other 2 of the major console gaming giants. Sony was dominating the market with their Playstation 2 and Nintendo’s current answer, the GameCube, wasn’t the smash hit that its past generations were. Knowing that they had to innovate or die Nintendo began the process of identifying their market and began to reform themselves around this idea. In essence their target market, the loyal customers of decades gone past, had grown up and now saw Nintendo’s offerings as childish. The now grown up gamers were more happy with the offerings of Sony and Microsoft respectively and Nintendo, not wanting to lose the family friendly title they’d earned themselves, began to look beyond the gamer title to discover their biggest untapped market: people who didn’t play games. The result is the Nintendo Wii a console that was so wildly popular that they were sold out constantly for months at a time. Nintendo knew that some of the biggest markets are the ones with people not using your products.

Contrasting this with the Apple vs Android battle the similarities to Nintendo start to become apparent. Apple only makes two handsets both of which are really the same product. Granted it’s a pretty good product that is arguably the cause for the creation of its current competitors. Android on the other hand is now available on a multitude of devices with plenty more in the pipeline from multiple manufacturers. For Android sales this means that there’s a handset to suit almost any mobile phone user out there opening up a much wider market than that of the iPhone. Thus many of the features reserved for the annals of the smartphone users have now trickled down to the lower end of the market. This is simply a market that Apple won’t capture because realistically, that’s not where the money is for them.

There are of course pitfalls to capturing such a wide market. Platform fragmentation is something that all developers wanting to bring their application onto Android handsets have to deal with. For good programmers it’s an easy but time consuming task to overcome as you either aim your application at the lowest common denominator thereby limiting its capabilities or you deliberately shut out a segment of the market, potentially damaging your revenue streams or potential user base. Whilst this could be overcome with faster response times from handset manufacturers with software updates it still stands as a barrier to developers adopting the Android platform and it remains to be seen how Google will cope with it.

Realistically even though I expect Android to become the dominate player in the smartphone market I don’t think Apple will be affected that much. They carved out their product niche a long time ago and the users they courted back then will remain loyal to them for a long time to come. Android with their shotgun approach to market domination will capture more users overall but I think that for a long time to come they’ll still be playing catch up with Apple in terms of market potential. In the end though the smartphone war means better products and a bigger catalog of handsets to choose from, a boon to consumers everywhere.

It’s one of those rare occasions where everyone wins. Apple gets their profitable niche, Google creates an open platform that anyone can use and we get ever more capable phones. Isn’t that just plain awesome?

Market Value: It’s Not As Scary As It Sounds.

As an IT contractor I’m really just another faceless item in the meat market of IT skill sets. Every 6 months or so I’m usually in the midst of a couple of hundred other contractors all of whom are looking to either extend their current contracts or are dutifully lining up for each new job that comes along so that our prospective employers can look us over and select the best one of the lot to throw to their various project wolves. We’re still treated like real employees for the most part but we trade off things like on the job training and annual leave for the almighty dollar, usually in the hopes of coming out better off overall at the end. Consequently we’re slaves to the market as for every person that’s charging X to get Y done there’s a slew of them who will do it for a fraction less and coupled with the Gershon report there’s every chance you’ll be usurped by one of them before you know it.

Market value is the key metric by which us contractors define what rate we charge our employers. It’s a rather complicated metric to define as there’s no definitive source of contractor rates (although contracting agencies do have some on their own contractors) so for the most part it’s done on secondhand information, industry rumors and a whole swath of guesswork. Still for any given position you can come up with a reasonably good figure for how much someone in that position would be charging give or take about 10%. Of course budgets play a big part in what people are willing to pay for certain types of work meaning in places like Canberra when the end of financial year comes around we’d start to see an upward trend in rates as all the government departments spend all the leftover dollars they have.

However the term market rate doesn’t seem to apply if you’re looking to extend your contract. Now I’ve been through a few of these myself and every single time when I’ve asked for a rate increase I’ve been knocked back. I can lay a fair amount of the blame squarely at the Gershon report for that as it was responsible for devastating the contractor market initially and continues to keep our rates in check. That’s not a particularly bad thing as for a long time departments were hiding large staff costs by using contractors (our cash comes from another bucket) and the Gershon report forced them to come clean on the matter. Still when you get someone in a position and they’re doing the job aptly it makes sense to keep them at their market rate, lest they start eying off positions elsewhere. Contractors by definition are not bound to any employer and are more than happy to wear the risk of being unemployed if they feel a better deal is to be had elsewhere.

You could write that off by saying that my market rate was what they were paying me in the first place but unfortunately after leaving a previous contract and gaining the rate rise I had originally requested I knew this not to be the case. Granted at the time they had told me that they wouldn’t extend me (I had completed all the work they needed me for and I saw this coming months out) but after landing the new position they asked to retain me at the same rate, fully knowing I had already sourced employment elsewhere. My last request for a rate rise was also rejected purely on the basis of the Gershon report. I was willing to wear that one though as I’d only been there for 6 months.

I can understand the reasoning behind wanting to keep costs low as any department caught spending big on contractors doesn’t look particularly good. Still research shows that replacing an employee will cost you about 1.5 times their current salary meaning that the paltry increases that they may be asking for above CPI are mere peanuts. I have yet to find any organisation that understands this as most, whilst disappointed to lose good staff, have never made a concerted effort to retain me. Many would argue that my now long list of past employers would be a detriment to finding future work, but they’ve been saying that since I started job 3.

Maybe I’m just bitter about having to jump jobs every year because my current employers never want to give me a raise, but talking with my other contractor buddies it doesn’t seem to be isolated to just me. I turned to contracting over 2 years ago as it suited my style of work and with the hopes that my employers would then recognize the value I was providing. More and more it seems though that I’m just another employee paid from another bucket of money and if I believe that I’m worth more than what they’re paying me for my best bet to realize that is to continue the ship jumping I’ve been doing for the past 6 years. It’s quite possible that I’m just one greedy son of a bitch but my long list of satisfied customers would appear to say that I just severely underestimate my own self worth.

Yet another reason on the towering pile to get into business for myself, then I only have myself to blame if I don’t get paid enough. ;)

Basic Management: Identify Your Weaknesses.

A good manager is a fungible commodity. You should be able to transplant them between different companies and, aside from minor operational changes, they will be able to adapt quite quickly to their new environment. I do appreciate that teams can benefit from having a leader that has direct experience in the field of work that their team is conducting but for the most part the role of ensuring that a team has an environment that is conducive to getting their work done is a skill that transcends any field. Unfortunately for most of us however the managers we labor under do not fall into my classification of good and whilst there are many causes for that it’s primarily one thing: they fail to identify their own weaknesses and manage them accordingly.

It appears to be a commonly held belief that if your boss doesn’t understand what you’re doing then you’re doomed to either struggle to get work done or never receive the recognition you deserve. I’m unfortunately going to have to echo this point as the majority of managers seem to arise primarily from one category I previously mentioned: those who rose from the ranks. Now inherently they are no worse than the other kind however the real world tendency is for us to promote those amongst us as a preference to bringing in someone from outside to lead. Whilst this does mean you have a leader with a good understanding of the issues at hand it also means that they usually lack the skills that make good managers fungible. Additionally they tend to be too involved in smaller issues that they perceive as critical, rather than forming strategic plans to address underlying issues.

There’s a saying that I can’t find a source for that states “Good managers are those who surround themselves with people smarter than them. Bad managers hire those who agree with everything they say”. Part of being a manager of a group of people is understanding that you don’t know everything and ensuring that the people under you have all the skills required in order to accomplish the task at hand. This is where many managers fall down as rising through the ranks to become the leader of a group of people can have the unfortunate effect of putting that person on the expert pedestal. Once their authority is officially cemented any notion that they weren’t the best at something quickly evaporates and you now have someone with power and a false sense of expertise. They will then tend to hire those that agree with their new found expertise rather than those that disagree with them. Whilst I’m sure none of the real life situations are this melodramatic the core principals have rung true in practically all of the workplaces I’ve graced over the years.

Ultimately this comes down to a problem of them failing to identify their own weaknesses and delegating to their employees who are stronger in those areas. Taking this to its logical end point you can see why a manager with a core set of skills is fungible between almost any field of work in the world as they should be able to quickly identify the expertise required and where their own experience falls down. Over time they will be able to learn the nuances of the work that their employees undertake and should be able to approach the same level of understanding that a manager who rose from the ranks had. Still for much of the working world is probably the less common of the two types of managers to encounter, simply because we’re still basing our entire management ideals on a model from the industrial revolution era.

The principals I’ve talked about in here can easily be applied to those of us who aren’t working in the world of management, especially if you have your eye on making a career there someday. You’d probably find that if you get a reputation for identify weaknesses, creating solutions and managing resources that your colleagues will be recommending you to be the next top dog. Whilst there are still many more things to making a good manager the core principal of knowing your limitations and remedying them is probably the most frequent idea that managers get wrong, much to the dismay of the people they’re managing.

I think I’ve written enough on management to get to the put up or shut up stage now, time for me to hire some underlings… ;)

Maybe You Just Need to Innovate.

There’s been many times when I’ve caught myself with some kind of random idea for a product, service or whatever that I’ve quickly thrown on an ever growing pile of ideas. It doesn’t seem to take long for that one idea that I’ve had to turn from something I thought that I only thought of to someone else’s business venture upon which time I curse myself for not following through on it. Granted many of these ideas have been kicking around in my head for years without them coming to fruition and my recent attempts to develop one of them has been quite the eye opener, showing me that ideas are great and all but implementations are still king.

This is one of the biggest challenges that anyone will come up against when trying to develop a product or service: someone has already done it before. In this world that thrives on innovation being the first to market with a new widget is a powerful force and almost guarantees you the lion’s share of the early adopter market. The problem here is though that being first to market with something means one of two things: either you’re creating a market that didn’t exist before (see Apple and Nintendo as good examples of this) or you’ve seen an established market and noticed something sorely lacking, which pits you against established players in this space. In both these cases if you’re just starting out at being an entrepreneur your friends, family and potential business partners will more than likely shoot a skeptical eye your way telling you that there’s no way it could work.

For the most part they’re right, in a traditional business world starting from scratch is a pretty risky business and whilst the jury is still out on how you can judge failure rates of new companies it’s no secret that you’re more likely to fail than succeed. To an investor a business plan that builds on proven methods will look a lot more attractive as there’s a much better chance that they’ll get a return on their money even if it would be smaller than something that could be perceived as a higher risk. Consequently this has the effect of stifling innovation for certain high risk ventures, although that trend is starting to change.

In the tech industry at least this can be attributed to investors gaining back the confidence they lost in the tech industry back in the dot com bust. After the crash many investors sought more stable investments (and look how that turned out!) and shied away from funding what looked like high risk ventures. As a consequence many hungry start up founders started to make do with a lot less and this drove a phenomenal amount of innovation. Primarily this was to attract their once bitten investors back into the fray and the last couple years has seen the resurgence of the high tech start up craze that we lived through only a decade ago.

For those looking to lash out into the world of tech start ups this means that for any idea that you might have you’re going to be compared to those who’ve come before you. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re destined to fail, it just means that you’ve got your work cut out for you if you’re looking to make an impression in the tech world. Innovation in this fast paced tech world is the name of the game and whilst any market you may care to get into (hats off to you if you manage to create one) may appear to be completely saturated that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed in that space. It all comes down to how you differentiate yourself from the pack.

Maybe this blog post is more for my benefit than anyone else’s as I’m currently staring right down the barrel of trying to attempt such a feat myself. The location space is heating up like crazy and all the large players in other spaces are already integrating location based services into their current offerings. Initially this was a boon for me but I’ve come to realize it first as a hindrance to me progressing my core functionality (Oh another information feed with co-ordinates in it, better integrate that one too!) and secondly as another blow against a product I’m looking to deliver. Realistically though I know what I want to do is different enough from every one else to warrant at least an attempt to make it successful and should it fail I’ll be that much wiser about the whole process, ready to try over again with yet another idea.

Realistically I’d need a team of 100 people to try all the ideas I have, so I could be in this cycle for quite some time ;)

The Internet Filter: Only Just Now Politically Toxic?

It was just on 2 years ago that the first stray details of an Internet filter started to make their way into the public arena. Back then it was a little guy, meekly hobbling in after its failed predecessor NetAlert and making the promise to protect children online. Sure, we all thought, we have no problems with parents having the option to have their Internet filtered at request. I mean there are already companies doing that in Australia and realistically I understood that whilst parents are becoming increasingly more tech savvy not all of them are at the point where they could implement and understand a personal filter of their own. It didn’t take long for that almost nothing policy to morph into what it is today and the tech community violently opposed it with every fibre of their being. I’ve dedicated a good deal of my time to raising awareness about how bad this policy is and finally it seems that Senator Conroy might finally be listening.

It’s no secret that Labor is in a bit of trouble when it comes to their approval ratings. This was after being nigh untouchable for the majority of their term thanks to an extremely weak opposition but after enduring constant attacks from the Liberal guard dog Abbott Labor is struggling to win support. Consequently something like the Internet filter which, although unpopular amongst the tech community, could be easily shrugged off. Now it seems that with their margins for winning getting slimmer by the day they’ve decided to label the Internet filter as toxic policy:

The internet censorship policy has joined the government’s list of “politically toxic subjects” and will almost certainly be shelved until after the federal election, Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam says.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – already facing a voter backlash over several perceived policy failures – is expected to call the election before the end of the year and the feeling of many in Canberra is that next week will be the last sitting week of Parliament.

Parliament is not due to sit again until August 24, leaving little time to introduce the legislation and have it debated and passed in time for the election.

This is in addition to what Conroy said about a month ago in that  he would be introducing the legislation in the later half of the year, fully knowing that an election would be called around the same time effectively shelving the legislation until they were in a better political position. It’s quite obvious that they’ve known for some time that the filter hasn’t been particularly popular, but unfortunately for them backing down on this legislation would probably do them as much harm as good. I say that mostly because there’s a couple lobbyists who seem to have a lot of sway with the Rudd government and pulling support for the filter would more than likely see them pull their support. That’s in addition to giving Abbot yet another bullet to fire at Rudd with his whole broken promises spin, something which I know Rudd would be keen to avoid.

I’ve said many times before that I would conditionally support an opt-out filter and fully support an opt-in filter. Mostly this is because I understand that some parents would much prefer the government to provide them a solution rather than trying to sort one out themselves, and that’s a valid view to hold. However I strongly object to being told that I’m no longer in control of deciding what I can and can’t see through the Internet when every other modern country in the world says the complete opposite. Had this policy been opt-in from the very beginning I believe that most major ISPs would already have the solutions in place as they know that most of their customers do not want it, and the implementations would be small scale. Still Conroy’s twisted vision of what needs to be done in order to make Australia a safe place for kids seems to mean that we’re all incapable of making such decisions for ourselves which, at its heart, is the core reason I reject the policy in its entirety.

Still for all the talk about how bad the filter is there are still those who are on our side fighting for some much more sensible policy options. Whilst I can appreciate that most concerns about policies like this are handled behind closed doors it’s comforting to know that there are members of the current incumbent government that are willing to come publicly against such idiotic legislation. Senator Lundy has, on several occasions, shown a complete understanding of the issues at hand and the concerns of the community at large. It still strikes me as odd that Conroy doesn’t seem to get it after all this time not even wanting to do public consultation on the matter nor even attempt to amend the policy in the hopes of getting it past parliament. Maybe I’m just a fool to believe that facts can overcome people’s biases.

I really can not wait for this policy to die the death it so rightly has coming to it. Whilst I appreciate the amount of blog fodder its has tossed my way I still don’t like hearing about it every couple months because that means it still has potential to come into law which would be one of the most devastating blows to freedom that Australia would ever see. Maybe we’ll see a turnaround at this election in Conroy’s electorate and the next one to replace him will be more level headed about the whole Internet filter.

A man can dream, can’t he?

The Internet Age: A Communication Method For Every Niche.

Cast your mind back 15 years, what was the most common way to get into contact with someone? Your answer was probably a land line telephone as the Internet was still low in its adoption rates and sending letters was starting to feel a little antiquated. Additionally faxing was beginning to take over as the de facto standard for sending documents around the globe  further cementing the telephone as the goto means for trying to communicate with someone. The alternatives where thin on the ground and realistically if you wanted to send a message to a large, multi-national audience you’d have to shell out some serious coin to get that done. Today however it seems that no matter who you are or who you want to talk to there’s already infrastructure in place to facilitate your desire to communicate and with that comes some interesting problems for those who used to dominate the international communications space.

This blog is a great example of just one of these forms of communication. Realistically if I wanted to write about things on a daily basis to a decent sized audience my options were fairly limited. Usually I’d have to have some kind of journalistic cred in order to get myself a daily column and that would also subject me to being under an editor. I could have wrote everything up, printed out thousands of copies and then hung them all over the place but that would be both time and cost prohibitive. Today I can reach a daily audience of dozens of people all for the cost of an hours work, an Internet connection and a bit of electricity to power my home server. If I was so inclined I could eliminate most of those costs by moving to a hosted solution, but I like tinkering too much to do that ;)

For the most part though I know that blogs don’t suit everyone, especially the kind of style that I’ve adopted for myself. Writing a post a day can seem like a chore to most people and if you’re like me you’re not prone to fits of creative inspiration often leading me on a frustrating hunt for something to write about. Additionally many people were already happy with their more traditional forms of communication and saw no need to start up a blog or similar to communicate to their intended audience.

Many of the new forms of communication are based around making the more traditional forms of mass communication (television, radio, newspapers, etc) much more accessible to the everyman. Primarily we have the Internet to thank for this as its pervasiveness opens up the largest potential audience for any content that you might dare to distribute. The rapid change from traditional media to the current user centric Internet experience has seen many corporations playing a game of catch up to make the most of this new medium with many just being outright hostile to what they perceive as being a threat to their bottom line. I can’t say that I blame them as any good corporations main goal is to maximize its profit for its shareholders but realistically if you’re trying to fight a fundamental change to your business model rather than adapt to it you’re not long for the technological world. There’s already a dozen hungry start ups that would be willing to take your place.

On the flip side though the various means of communication can be a bit of a curse. Although there is always a dominate player in the respective field the success of any new form of communication means there will be multiple players, all with their own distinct set of benefits. Ultimately this leads to a fragmented audience meaning either you attempt to cover off all your bases to hit the largest audience possible (exponentially increasing your work) or just target one potentially segregating off a large audience. In the end though content is still king and if you do good work people will overlook the medium in which its delivered.

What all this means for the everyman is that no matter who you are, what your message is or who your audience is there’s probably already a form of communication that’s perfectly suited to you. Want to start a TV show? Get a YouTube channel. Feel like exposing every little nuance of your life to the Internet? Get a Twitter account. Have aspirations of being a journalist but don’t want to do the training but hope that some technology/gaming/space big shot will see your potential and then pay you to write for them? Get off my territory and start a blog somewhere else boy! ;) The traditional content gatekeepers no longer apply for those of us lucky to live in the age of the Internet, where those who wish to express themselves and their audience is only separated by a few clicks and bit of bandwidth.

Colonization and the Case for Mars.

As humanity stands right now we’re only dipping our toes into the vast and wondrous universe that we live in. Our current endeavors to survive outside of the world that gave us life have been limited to short frolics to our closest celestial neighbor as well as extended trips at high speeds through our upper atmosphere. However our attempts to establish ourselves beyond the comfort of our own home have, for the past 40 years, remained firmly in the realm of dreams. Today we bear witness to such magnificent events that are set to rekindle that adventurer spirit that has been long dormant in mankind, paving the way for us to once again brave the unknown.

Whilst my ambition to see humans turn into a true space faring race my stem from a selfish desire to have one of my most desired dreams realized I also truly believe that if humanity is to survive long into the future we must journey to other worlds. As it stands right now the human race is vulnerable to extinction events which, whilst extremely unlikely, would see the end of the human race as we know it. Establishing ourselves away from our home world would not only teach us how to live more sustainably, it would also ensure that even in the most tragic of circumstances we as humans would continue on.

So where would we go to satisfy such an ambition? There really is only one answer:

Realistically however, the answer is more complicated than that.

Officially there are 8 planets that make up our solar system with multiple other bodies that don’t quite fit our current classifications of heavenly bodies. Of these half of them are what we call giants having sizes and masses ranging from 15 to 317 times that of earth. Humans would have no chance of ever surviving on these beasts as the gravity and radiation that these planets emit are extremely deadly to us organic beings. Of the 4 remaining planets we’re already inhabiting one of them, another a scorching ball of rock, one a warning sign to how devastating green house gases can be and finally a lone ball of red dust. You’d be forgiving for thinking that all of them bar our current home wouldn’t be worth trying to settle on but as it turns out our red cousin might just have what it takes to make ourselves at home.

It’s been known for quite some time that there are reserves of water ice on Mars. In what quantities and purities isn’t so definite, but there are significant amounts tied up in permafrosts, minerals and in ice sheets under the Martian surface. Using current day technology we would be easily able to extract enough to support a permanent colony on our red sister, even without the help of earth for resupply. Granted the best locations for water are not the best locations for people (it’s rather cold at the poles) but the fact remains that one of life’s most essential ingredients is in plentiful supply. Couple that with Mars’ soil having the unusual characteristic of being good for growing asparagus and you have the potential for the beginnings of a real ecosystem, something that Mars has lacked for millions of years.

Many will tell you that before we can even think of establishing ourselves on Mars we have to first conquer the challenge of living on our closest neighbor, the Moon. It’s an interesting proposition as many of the technologies that need to be developed to colonize another planet like Mars would also be applicable. The Moon as it stands is far more inhospitable to life which means that if we could prove that we could colonize it then basically any other reasonable heavenly body is possible as well. Still if Mars and the Moon were both equal in distance and travel time I highly doubt there would be any discussion over where we would be going next, as Mars is infinitely more valuable to us than the Moon. Still the fact remains that the furthest any human has ever gone away from home is no where near the time required to get to our sister planet, and that is insurmountable task that we face.

Honestly I would be all for a Moon colony as it would make future deep space missions much more feasible and would open up all sorts of opportunities such as a 100m telescope that would be almost 2000 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope. However most current plans to return to our celestial twin are often little more than flag planting exercises with no intention of setting up a permanent base of operations there. That is why I don’t support many of the proposals as their vision falls short of what is required to truly push humanity beyond our current comfort zone. Japan is probably the most forward thinking in this regard with their plans to build a robot base there by 2020.

I am by no means saying that this would be an easy endeavor. Cost estimates for a return mission start at a modest $55 billion which for comparison is just under half of what the International Space Station has cost. Most likely setting up a permanent colony on Mars would require dozens of such missions easily tipping the cost towards the trillions. Still we know that attempting such things spurs on many economic benefits that are many times greater than their cost to society. This would be the least of all the benefits that colonizing Mars would bring to the human race.

If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will:

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