Monthly Archives: December 2009

More Work? Right-o.

The last release of Geon was a kind of forced release from me. You see up until recently I had been using what Microsoft calls a Community Technology Preview (CTP) version of the map control that dominates the center of Geon. When it was initially released there wasn’t really any timeline around how long it was going to last so I had just assumed that it would work forever (save for the fact that I wouldn’t get any new features). However this turns out not to be the case as Microsoft so politely informed me a while back:

Valued Bing Maps Silverlight CTP Participant,

Thank you for participating in the CTP – we are excited to announce that the latest release of the Bing Maps Platform, including the v1 Silverlight Map Control, is officially here!

Please visit the Bing Maps Blog for a full breakdown of the Silverlight Map Control release details.

Important housekeeping details:

  • Please note that the CTP control will cease to function at midnight, December 31, 2009. To ensure continued functionality of your CTP applications, please make plans to upgrade to the version 1 code before that time. For a description of the version 1 changes from the CTP build, please visit the changelist reference in the SDK here.
  • The Connect site will remain available until December 15th for reference purposes only. Future technical questions/discussion should be directed to the Bing Map Control Development forum on MSDN (paid, evaluation and free account types) or to the Bing Enterprise Support Team (paid accounts).

Again, thank you for your participation in the CTP. Your feedback was invaluable improving the code and the overall platform. We look forward to working with you again in the future.

Well that meant 2 things: the first being I was completely wrong, although anyone who’s used CTP versions of software before will tell you what I thought was total bollocks. The second was that I had to rewrite some of Geon in order to make sure it was compatible with the new version of the plugin, as well as some dastardly new license requirements. I was none too happy to hear about them discontinuing my version and releasing a new one at the same time, but a couple features caught my eye.

On the surface most of it was just a cleanup of the code underneath. Many of the structs had been replaced with classes and the namespaces had changed to be more inline with Microsoft’s whole Bing strategy. They also introduced a licensing requirement so I had to get an application key in order to use their control. This isn’t all bad news since they’re pretty lax for developers like me who are just starting out, but still pales in comparison to Google’s (it’s free but if you’re making a big app tell us and we’ll put on extra servers for your app key). I’ve had it fail to register the key a couple times on me to so hopefully they work this all out in the coming months.

Microsoft also released the Bing Web Services SDK which has quite a few nice goodies in it. I’ve got my eye on the Geocode service since I currently use a free service that has been blasted in the past by apps like mine and has subsequently disable access to the free service. Whilst I’d like to avoid doing that each use of the Geocode service counts against my license key. Since I’d like to think that one day there will be a fair few people using Geon I’d like for it to stay usable for as long as possible as I work out the various licensing deals with all the services I’m using, and spreading the load across 2 services seems like a good bet at the moment.

So it might not have been the nicest of surprises but it did spurr me on to add in 3 more information feeds into Geon which I wouldn’t of done for a much longer time had I not been forced to work on it. So overall its good that Microsoft gave me the proverbial boot up the bum.

A Very Merry Christmas!

Just wanted to wish you all the best for this festive season. I hope you’re all as full and happy as I am right now ūüėÄ

As a little something for you all to fiddle with I’ve uploaded my most recent work on Geon, available here or in the lab. Blogs, News and Flickr all work now and you can apply filters to each feed individually by clicking on them (except for Flickr). I’ve been busy with another project for the past month or so but it should be completed before the new year and then it will be full steam back on Geon.

Be safe, enjoy your holidays and once again MERRY CHRISTMAS! ūüôā

A Skeptical Christmas.

Whilst I’m not a religious man myself (well not in any way you could define with mainstream religion, but that’s another complicated story) I do enjoy the Christmas/New Year period. It’s a great time to take stock of the past year and set goals for myself in the coming year. Still there’s parts of it that have started to give me a fair whack of cognitive dissonance, mainly around the whole Santa thing and the story that we perpetuate with our children. There’s one part of me that enjoys the whole wonder aspect of it and creating that awesome family experience that you can enjoy year after year (until they get old enough to ask questions) but on the other hand the skeptic in me rises up and starts asking me the most poignant question “Will you do the same with your kids?’. In all honesty I can’t say for sure what I will do.

If there’s one thing I’d like to avoid with my future offspring it would be intentionally making them social pariahs. I know what its like for kids who are just a little bit different and they’re going to cop enough flak as it is without me telling them all their friends are idiots for believing in Santa. So there’s a fine line to tread between being a good skeptic and being a good parent. Although there is the possibility that the people of the modern skeptic movement (who are by and large members of my generation) may instead take the alternative, meaning the social norm will shift. That’s not something I’m going to count on though.

I’ve had experience with this before as well. Working in childcare around this time of year usually garnered questions from kids along the lines of “Is Santa real”. I’d worked out the best line for this was “What do you think” with the majority of kids then giving me their own idea without me having to supply my own. It was a good tactic and served to keep the skeptic at bay whilst remaining approachable with the kids. There would be nothing worse than being a childcare worker known amongst the kids as the guy who killed Santa for them.

Is there a happy middle ground we can reach here? It’s deeply entrenched in most western worlds that we perpetuate this lie (don’t fool yourself, you’re lying to your kids), even to the point of getting companies like Air Services Australia to create websites and put their CEO on TV to spout this Santa nonsense. It’s great PR for them but it also shows how far we’re willing to perpetuate a fallacy for a very small section of the population. It’s been irking me every morning when I wake up to watch the news and I see fluff pieces like this on TV, but at the same time I don’t want to go around stomping on other’s childhoods just because I have a skeptical agenda to push.

It seems the skeptic and libertarian are duking it out again.

There’s another side to this tale to: the moment of realisation when you find out that Santa isn’t real and you begin to question what your parents tell you. Many of us have been through this moment and it usually comes at a time when we’re beginning to question the world around us. The realisation that your parents lied to you is astounding since you’ve been told from an early age that lying is unacceptable. Indeed to not perpetuate the Santa lie could very well be tantamount to denying your children a coming of age ritual that our society has been performing for several generations. Do we, as parents (or when we become them), have the right to deny them this? Maybe staying through the 5~8 years of perpetuating the Santa myth would be worth it to instill that lesson in your children that the only real facts are the ones you can verify yourself.

Gargh I’m still not comfortable with that proposition.

In the end what parent’s do with their children is their business and I’m not going to go about telling them what they should and shouldn’t do. Going against social norms is, especially for children, an easy way to see yourself ostracized and can be really devastating, something you’d want to avoid in those early years of a child’s life. After bashing this all out I still don’t know where I stand on all this and I’ll just have to keep letting the skeptic, future father and libertarian in my head duke it out until a clear winner comes out or they all collapse in on each other.

It’s going to be an interesting few days that’s for sure ūüėČ

Our Brave Explorer: Spirit.

You’d have to be under a rock for the past 6 years to not know of the great successes of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Initially only designed for a maximum operation of 90 days they have shown what good engineering and a little bit of luck can do for you as they’ve been running almost non-stop since they landed. They haven’t been without their share of troubles however with both of them becoming stuck in Mars’ unusual terrain at one time or the other. More recently however Spirit has been stuck at a point called Troy, which basically amounts to a typical sand trap with a rock in the middle of it. Here’s a little background on the situation:

The rover drove into soft ground a couple of weeks ago, and when it tried to get out, its wheels slipped and it moved only a couple of inches.

The Spirit has been stuck before, and mission managers have been assiduously driving it around potential hazards. But they did not see the soft spot, which was hidden under a veneer of normal-looking soil.

‚ÄúIt is quite serious,‚ÄĚ said John Callas, the project manager for the Spirit and the Opportunity, its twin rover on the other side of Mars.

Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator of the rover mission, said the material looked like ferric sulfate salt, which had previously been encountered. ‚ÄúFrom a rover mobility standpoint, it is insidious stuff,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThis stuff has very little cohesion. What this means is that it‚Äôs very tough for the rover wheels to get a grip on it.‚ÄĚ

Following the rover’s situation over at the NASA Free Spirit website shows that this initial report was indeed true. They began extraction attempts well over a month ago and progress has been extremely slow. If you have a look at any of the pictures over at their site you’ll see why, it’s pretty much wheel deep on all sides bar one which means it has very little traction. Compounded with the fact that the wheels weren’t really designed with this kind of surface in mind (the wheels would’ve been a lot larger and wider if they tried to compensate for this kind of terrain) we’re in for a long an arduous extraction process. Opportunity took about 3 months to extract itself out of a lesser situation, and had all of its wheels working.

Still it seems that despite its difficult situation the rover team is making the best of it. The rovers don’t really spend much time in any one spot and they rarely get themselves into a situation where they’re digging more than an inch into the martian soil. As it turns out all this wheel spinning has managed to break through the thin top crust and liberate some of the deeper down soil, with some very interesting results:

Spirit broke through a dark reddish-brown crusty surface that was an inch or so thick, exposing loose, sandy material. As the rover tried to break free, its wheels began to churn the soil, uncovering even more sandy material, bearing “a higher concentration of sulfate that seen anywhere else on Mars,” Arvidson said.

“Sulfates are minerals just beneath the surface that shout to us that they were formed in steam vents or hydrothermal pools, since hot water associated with these systems has sulfur in it,” he explained. “These deposits are evidence of water-charged explosive volcanism. Such areas could have once supported life.”

“Also, the robot found that the top of the sulfate material is crusty,” Arvidson added. “Ancient sulfates probably formed this crust as they were processed by variations in climate associated with changes in Mars’ orbit over millions of years.”

That’s pretty exciting stuff right there and it just adds more credence to the theory that Mars was once a potential home to life and could quite possibly have been quite similar to our own blue marbel. It’s discoveries like these that have influenced projects such as the Mars Science Laboratory, which will answer these questions with much greater detail.

It’s not all bad news for Spirit however, they recently gave all wheels a diagnostic test to see what their condition was like. Although it was a long shot they decided to include the supposedly dead wheel a go as well, figuring that it was a long shot but could pay off big should it respond. To everyone’s surprise it did and whilst it’s not 100% conclusive that the wheel is ready, willing and able it does mean there’s a small glimmer of hope on the horizon for extracting Spirit out of Troy before it freezes to death in the martian winter.

Maybe we’ll see some traction (snicker) in the new year ūüôā

Geeks, Nerds and the New Social Norms.

I spent a good part of my life being tagged with either one of the terms you see in the title above this post. For a long time I took offence to it as it was a label that put me on the outside of almost any social group. That was until I found my like minded kin who shared the same interests as me and from then on the term took on something completely different. No longer did I feel ashamed to call myself a geek or nerd, especially when I’d explain my hobbies to others. To be truly honest none of my friends really fit the typical definition of geek or nerd as we all have some aspects of ourselves that don’t quite fit the image (for instance most of us are quite physically active, I myself work out 4 times per week) and I had reserved to using the term “modern geek” in my head to describe them. At our hearts we still share the aspirations of the stereotypes but that only makes up a portion of who we are.

You can then imagine my reaction to this piece I saw in the New York Times:

The Times ran an article Monday suggesting that what America will need in the future are more ‚Äúcool nerds.‚ÄĚ A playful tweak of the nerd stereotype, to be sure, in an effort to alter it. The people described in the piece were ones with hybrid careers, combining computing with other fields from medicine to Hollywood.

These are jobs that do not match the classic computer geek or nerd image ‚ÄĒ a heads-down programmer who is socially isolated. In the new hybrid careers, computing is a crucial ingredient and, economists say, such work will be the source of many new jobs of the future.

But David Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College, says that merely mentioning terms like nerd or geek serves to perpetuate the stereotype. The words are damaging, much like racial epithets, he says, and should be avoided.

Personally I don’t find the terms damaging at all. I remember when I was working in child care, many years ago now, I had a group of 10 year olds approach me and ask the question “Are you a nerd?” in an attempt to bait a response from me. Casually replying “yes” threw them completely off balance as that obviously wasn’t the answer they were expecting. After that I never heard them use the term in a derogatory sense again. It was a testament to how you can identify with a stereotype but not let the negative connotations that are associated with it affect you. I can only imagine how my life would be if I learnt that life lesson 15 years earlier.

Whilst I hate to admit it there are also people to thank for changing the terms geek and nerd from a stereotype to a label people wear proudly; namely people like Steve Jobs. He has managed to take a niche computing company and turn it into a brand with the power of bringing what was traditionally sacrosanct technology in the halls of geeks and nerds to the wider world and in the process made it cool. From the proliferation of Macbooks in university campuses and Starbucks the world around, to the penetration of the smartphone markets with the iPhone Apple has truly made leaps and bounds for all us geeky and nerdy types as being something to aspire to, not to avoid. I’m not an Apple fanboy by any stretch of the imagination but their affect on culture worldwide is really quite hard to ignore.

With all things nerdy and geeky now becoming a mainstay in almost everyone’s life (how many people do you know who don’t own a computer?) it really was only a matter of time before those who were ostrasized became elevated to the social positions we now place them in today. Being a geek or nerd in this modern world is now just a part of social norms as being an avid sports fan and this shows through with the multi-billion dollar industries that have popped up to cater to us geeks and nerds, just like our sporty counterparts.

I guess the big question is what will be the next ostracized social behaviour that will turn into a norm?

Microsoft Live Mesh: Almost Too Easy.

After working with enterprise level gear for a while you start to miss certain things when you’re working on your own kit at home. One of the biggest things for anyone is out of band management which is the ability to access a computer remotely as if you were sitting right in front of it. It’s really quite handy when you’re working in large environments with data centers that can be several hundred kilometers away or even just a 5 minute walk down the hallway, since us geeks aren’t known for our physical prowess. So when it comes time for us to access our kit when we’re not at home us geeks have traditionally turned to services like LogMeIn or programs based around the VNC protocol to get the job done, which aren’t technically out of band management solutions but get the job done more or less. However Microsoft recently released their Live Mesh beta to the wider world and it too can provide such remote access functionality. I decided to give it a test spin last week.

Mesh appears to be an organic evolution of some of the other cloud services that Microsoft began providing last year. If you had heard of their SkyDrive product you’ll understand why I’m saying this, since the sales pitch is basically the same. In essence it is marketed as an online folder that you can use to sync data across multiple devices, including mobile phones. They offer up 5GB of online storage for free which isn’t too bad for a completely free service. I haven’t really used this feature much myself but I can see it being useful for keeping critical files on hand, although I question the phone integration as being somewhat useless (my 3G coverage seems a tad patchy, and I’d hate for it to try and download anything over 1MB on GPRS). The fact that they’re looking to do this cross platform does show that they’re committed to this being a true cloud service, although time will tell how far they actually go with that.

The most attractive feature for me of Mesh was the remote desktop in a web browser feature. I’d been fooling around with several different VNC clients in order to get the same thing working but they always failed in one way or the other. I was always hesitant of similar services as I didn’t really want to provide them access to my machine. However I figured that if Microsoft wanted to remotely access my PC they could probably already do it, so I resigned myself to give it a try. After putting in my Live credentials I was greeted with a ring and an opportunity to add devices to my network. This is where things started to get interesting.

Mesh’s install process is blindly easy. All you have to do is login, click on Add device, select the appropriate operating system (the Vista client works fine on Windows 7), and click install. About 5 minutes later you’ll be asked to provide your Live credentials again but after that the Mesh client will sit quietly in your system tray and the device you added will become available in the Mesh ring. Clicking on the device will allow you to connect to it remotely, as if you were sitting right in front of it. This is where the Mesh client really starts to shine because all of this took about 10 minutes total to set up and use with nary a firewall port to forward or any other kind of trickery. The desktop will be shown to you in its native resolution scaled up or down to fit whatever monitor you may be using at the time. Whilst this did make my dual screen desktop look decidedly squished on my monitors at work it was still usable, and my single monitor media PC scaled down quite well. Even with my meager 100KB/s upload (shared with this web server) the interface was quite responsive, even with 2 sessions running. Everything seemed fairly easy up to this point and I could easily see non-tech savvy people using this service.

However the experience was not without its share of problems. The Mesh interface for the desktop connections is done through a dreaded ActiveX control, which means you’ll only be accessing it through Internet Explorer. Granted the last 2 incarnations of this browser have made great leaps in undoing the damage to Internet standards that all its predecessors did but I’m still a Firefox/Chrome man myself (mostly for the wide array of plugins). Additionally whilst running 2 sessions is possible you’ll have to open up 2 separate browser instances for it to work, otherwise one of the sessions will just plain not work. This is provided that you can actually get into your computers since the connection is initiated from Microsoft’s servers which managed to drop me out of my session on more than one occasion. I can understand this since its still in beta, but having the console report strange error codes with little explaining text (sending me into a Google flurry) didn’t¬† garner any good will with me. There is definitely room for improvement here.

I really can’t fault Microsoft for trying here and the service overall is quite good. They still have some way to go before they’re up to the level of other services out there but for something that is free and that integrates so easily with any Windows operating system I can’t say that I would recommend anything else for those who need something simple to provide remote access to their PCs. I’ll be keeping a keen eye on it over the coming months and I’ll be hoping to see things like Outlook integration so I can sync my contacts and email on the fly without having to set up an exchange server to do so. But that could be wishful thinking on my part, but I’m sure it’s on Microsoft’s radar.

Form, Function and Methodology.

Conjure up in your mind a picture of the humble nail cutter (or if you have one handy grab it!). Not only is this device a marvel of modern technology it also proves to be a useful example of what good engineering practices should be. Can you figure them out? The same question was posited to one of my classes when I was still in university, and none of us could come up with a good enough reason to satisfy our lecturer. If you take a step back and look at a nail cutter you notice something, there’s not a lot to them.

The majority of nail cutters are made out of a grand total of about 6 parts (Lever, top cutter, bottom cutter, file, front pin and rear rivet). Whilst the whole thing might appear simple on the surface it is indeed a feat of complex engineering. Each of the pieces serves up more than one function in order to achieve the end result. Our lecturer at the time had us try to imagine a nail cutter that’s design only let each piece perform a single function. The resulting contraption was a monstrosity of dozens of parts and if created would have been more than double the size of a convention nail cutter. This exercise was done to teach us the importance of modularity, and when its gone too far.

One of the very first methods you’re taught as an engineer for problem solving is to take what looks like a large problem and divide it into smaller and smaller sections until it becomes managable. We were first taught this in reverse with our first assignments usually serving as a basis for the rest of the semester. However early in our second year we were given what appeared to be almost impossible projects only to have small clues as to their solution taught to us in the weeks ahead. The problem is however, that when you take the modular design methodology too far you end up with innumerable small components which then changes your problem into one of integration. The nail clipper example showed us that you shouldn’t modularize a problem beyond what will allow you to solve it, for want of introducing complexity rather than removing it.

You can see this methodology applied almost everywhere, for better and for worse. It’s one of those problem solving skills that doesn’t get taught in school and really its one skill that I can’t imagine myself being without. If you take the time to analyze any problem you might have and break it down into its basic components nearly anything just becomes a matter of time, rather than brainpower.

Now, go forth and modularize my minions! ūüėÄ

Internet Filter: 2010 is the Internet’s 2012.

Just over a year ago today I started this blog as a part of a larger body of work to combat the lunacy that is the Internet filter. I thought we were doing a good job of it to, since the trial was delayed several times and as far as anyone could tell the policy was dying a slow quite death. Indeed with companies like the Internet giant Google damning the policy you’d think that the government would want it to disappear quietly into the dark night. As it turns out nothing could be further from the truth, with several news articles coming out yesterday stating that not only had the trial been successful, it had actually achieved filtering nirvana:

THE Federal Government is pushing ahead with its controversial plan to filter the internet, saying illegal material can be blocked “with 100 per cent accuracy and negligible impact on internet speed”. It has just released results of its latest live filtering trials, used as proof that a national internet filter will work.

Labor will introduce legislation next year requiring all service providers to ban “refused classification” (RC) material hosted on overseas servers.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says RC material includes “child sex abuse content, bestiality, sexual violence and the detailed instruction of crime and drug use”.

“Most Australians acknowledge there is some internet content which is not acceptable in any civilised society,” Senator Conroy said.

A little digging around got me a link to the full report, available here. Looking into the report there are a few issues I can identify outright and some more insights I’ve gleaned after reading the whole thing. Overall it doesn’t bode well for us Australian’s who enjoy our Internet unfiltered.

The first issue I draw with the report is this line on page 7 (you’ll have to forgive their spelling mistakes to):

Participants¬†were¬†tested¬†for¬†accuracy¬†in¬†blocking¬†the¬†ACMA¬†blacklist¬†only¬†and¬†all¬†nine¬†participants achieved¬†100¬†percent¬†accuracy¬†‚Äź¬†a¬†base¬†requirement¬†of¬†the¬†pilot.

Ok this is not what the initial proposal for the filter was, nor what Conroy’s rhetoric had alluded to. Filtering a list of 10,000 URLs is a trivial exercise and I’m not surprised that such a filter worked on an ISP level. In fact the government has already provided software to parents that will work to such an effect which can run on a home grade computer. This is not the heart of the problem though, as the technical challenge was just a small part of it. No where in the report or the rhetoric do we see a policy for how URLs get on the blacklist nor how to get it off should you somehow get on it. In essence the premise of the testing was a complete and utter farce.

The report indicates that any measures taken to prevent circumvention will have a negative impact on performance (pp 3, 25-27). Now when the results of this report were released there was no mention of this and it leaves the government with 2 options when they try to push the filter through. They have to either mandate that circumvention prevention be enabled (We can’t have the kids getting around this filter now can we) which degrades performance significantly or they simply leave it out, meaning that anyone with 5 minutes and Google can circumvent it. In essence saying that the filter trial was 100% successful is again misleading since any filter implemented on the back of these results will fail at either providing the service it seeks to achieve or send Australia’s Internet to the digital back water. Again it’s a load of bull.

However it seems that Telstra showed a small bit of sense for once (pg 7) which also provided some insight into the larger issues at hand:

Telstra did not test circumvention, because it considers that filtering can be circumvented by a technically competent user.

Telstra¬†found¬†its¬†filtering¬†solution¬†was¬†not¬†effective¬†in¬†the¬†case¬†of¬†non‚Äźweb¬†based¬†protocols¬†such¬†as¬†instant messaging,¬†peer‚Äźto‚Äźpeer¬†or¬†chat¬†rooms.¬†Enex¬†confirms¬†that¬†this¬†is¬†also¬†the¬†case¬†for¬†all¬†filters¬†presented¬†in¬†the pilot.¬†Telstra¬†reported¬†that¬†heavy¬†traffic¬†sites¬†could¬†overload¬†its¬†trial¬†filtering¬†solution¬†if¬†included¬†in¬†the¬†filtering blacklist.¬†This¬†is¬†also¬†the¬†case¬†for¬†all¬†filters¬†presented¬†in¬†the¬†pilot.

So let me get this straight, you can’t filter P2P (which Conroy said he was going to do as well) and if a high traffic site somehow manages to get on the blacklist your filter solution will get overloaded which would then, logically, lead to either slowdown or loss of Internet for those who are on it? Heaven help them if RedTube ever ends up on that list, oh wait it already is. Trying to implement this kind of thing with an Alexa Top 100 site on their list, and one that ranks in the top 50 in Australia, will almost certainly overload the filters of any real large scale ISP that tries to implement these technologies.

There’s another small issue here to, none of the participants are named and neither are their solutions making a real analysis of these results impossible. If we go off the list they released a long time ago 5 of them were small time ISPs and only one of them was a semi-large (iPrimus), but still a small player in respect to the larger Internet community in Australia. Their report states that there were 9 total ISPs (2 large, 1 medium and 6 small) however with Optus being the only large provider who’s openly supported it (all the others have been outright hostile and Telstra didn’t test on their live network) that only leaves the medium (iPrimus) and 6 small for them to base their tests off. You can see why I question how relevant the results really are.

The report shows just how ridiculous the filter really is and how you can distort any test results to support your rhetorical point of view. Any real implementation of the filter will not mimic these results and trumpeting these results as showing that such a thing is viable is an insult to the public’s intelligence. I hope you will all join me in sending Conroy a message that this kind of malarkey will not be tolerated by the Australian community at large.

Watching The Camel Being Designed.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in those team building workshops you’ve probably already heard the saying “The camel was the horse designed by committee“. This is even more true when working in government departments where the tendency for people to rise to their level of incompetence with almost clockwork consistency. I have spent all today in one such session (hence the late post) and I can say that without a doubt it was one of the most confusing and pointless exercises I’ve ever been through.

I can easily understand upper management’s vision of trying to make our section more sociable with each other. Its nice to have a work environment were everyone is friends with each other and sure there can be tangible benefits to the organisation in terms of productivity. What I don’t understand is the need to try and force this upon everyone, especially those who have a tendency to you know, not typically socialise that well (yes I’m stereotyping IT workers, but seriously, it’s true most of the time). It’s not that I hate everyone where I work, far from it. I find the majority of them very easy to get along with and I’ve yet to rub anyone the wrong way. Still they’re completely different people to me, most of them in their 30s with kids and have completely different interests to me. Sure there’s some common things but in the majority I’m sure they’re not particularly interested in hanging out with me after work. There’s nothing wrong with this either and if I bump into them while I’m out I’ll be sure to strike up a good conversation with them. But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that everyone I work with is one of my friends.

And then came the camel designing. There had been a survey sent around some time ago (I think it was before my time) in which they looked for what they did well and what they didn’t. Of course this was an inherently bad idea since one thing that someone believes the organisation does well someone else will refute. So whilst there were some main themes that could be discerned it appeared for many things that we managed to do them both well and badly all at the same time. We started to drift into camel territory quickly when it came time to design some solutions to the problems people had alluded to in the surveys. The themes we had identified earlier were in no way solved by the solutions proposed. Instead there were several agenda pushers who obviously had some goal in mind and directed the group in such a way so that it appeared that the solutions would help, but in reality they did nothing to solve the underlying issues.

I gave up after my idea of having an open forum (to give everyone a voice, not just the senior management) took 10 minutes to explain and was still misinterpreted. I’m more than happy to watch them writhe in their own web of problems.

The problem with the whole process was that it was done with the illusion of giving everyone the opportunity to shape the future of the section, when in fact that power was robbed from them because of the process. The aggregation of results, which were then separated into 6 categories for analysis by each individual team, meant that the power shifted from the survey results to their interpreters. Couple this with the tyranny of majority and any power granted to the individual originally evaporates. They then took a vote from everyone to prioritize these objectives without considering that some of them were already in motion and others overlapped each other (I.E. one was to develop a section wide projects group and the other was to develop a projects pipeline. Realistically the latter should be part of the former). In essence I saw what people thought was a democratic process die a slow painful death right before my eyes.

I’ve never really been a fan of these junkets and this one was no exception. As a contractor who has little power over the direction of an organisation usually being forced to attend something where I had absolutely no power was a pointless waste of time and tax payer dollars. I’ll happily eat my words if they implement 50% of the things they mentioned and they provide some tangible benefit. My guess is that one or the other will happen, not both.

Sure you could also write this all off as me being bitter about having no power to control the direction of the agency I’m working for, and that’s a valid point. I’m not really a fan of going through a process to give me the illusion that I have some power when I know I don’t. The whole process could have easily omitted contractors such as myself who should really not be involved in such things. We’re meant to be hired to fill a temporary gap in skills or to spread the workload so that project work can be completed. In typical Australian government fashion were far from it, with us being treated like permanent employees with the only difference being that our pay comes from a different bucket of money (oh and less HR overheads).

The lack of control doesn’t really bother me. Being told I have influence when I know I don’t does give me the irrates though.

End of rant.

R18+: Have Your Voice Heard!

I’m not what you’d call a big grassroots political kind of person. Really the only thing I was ever actively involved in was the Internet Filter malarkey (which in fact was the original inspiration for this blog). Still I’ve become more politically motivated recently when things started hitting closer to home, namely when Left 4 Dead 2 was refused classification in Australia. So you can imagine my surprise this morning when Triple J’s news headlines had a bit of a negative beat up on the R18+ rating, considering their demographic is the people who feel most strongly about it.¬† Doing a little bit of digging this morning found that they had just taken the negative spin on the larger piece of news which was that the government is reaching out to the public for consultation on this matter:

The Federal Government has this afternoon released a discussion paper on the merits of an R18+ classification for video games. The move is part of a round of public consultation on the issue that will continue until the end of February next year.

The paper contains a brief overview of the National Classification Scheme and outlines the arguments both for and against the introduction of an R18+ rating for video games. It also describes how the Australian public may make a submission and let their voices be heard in the debate.

They’re not kidding around either, they’re taking submissions by email, fax and good old snail mail. Filling out the form takes about 5~10 minutes (depends on how much of a rant you go on in the comments) and we really need all the support we can get on this matter in order to overwhelm the current road block of Senator Atkinson. If the public comes out and overwhelmingly supports the movement his hyperbolic rhetoric will get him no where and he’ll have to concede. So take 5 minutes out of your day and download the form and fill it out and then send it to [email protected]. Here’s my submission to them:

Today in Australia the average age of a person who plays games is 30 years of age and over 90% of all Australians support a R18+ rating for games. Denying the gamer demographic a R18+ rating fails to recognise that the majority are mature adults that are capable of making informed decisions about the media that they consume. It is a hangover from times when the computer games industry was in its infancy and should be modernised. Refusing to do so only serves to damage Australia’s reputation amongst game developers locally and world wide.

Ultimately the responsibility for minor’s consumption of material such as that contained in R18+ games lies with the parents. In an increasingly technologic society minors are more capable than ever of obtaining such material illegitimately, and will continue to do so. Having such a rating would increase awareness of such material and ultimately ensure that parents are more informed and can then properly regulate their children’s consumption of said media. Simply denying classification only drives the problem underground.

Australia’s lack of a R18+ rating for games makes no sense to the wider international community and only damages our reputation as a progressive, modern country. The introduction of a R18+ rating requires little effort from all require parties with distinct, tangible benefits to be had. I fully support the introduction of such a classification and encourage the government to change its stance on this issue as swiftly as possible.

So please, send this around, get the word out and let’s show the government that us mature gamers want and deserve a rating for our choice of media. Australia’s policies on this matter are in dire need of being modernised and the more people that speak out the more chance we have of making some real difference in this matter.