Sunday, 27 September 2009

Honda's U3-X electric unicycle

Here's another electric unicycle prototype, this time from Honda:

Unlike the Enicycle, or even Trevor Blackwell's Eunicycle or the Uno, this one seems to be pitched as an indoor mobility device, rather than as outdoor transportation. Top speed is an incredible 3.7 mph! No plans for production yet.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Quote of the day

prepBut nI vrbLike adjHungarian! qWhat's artThe adjBig nProblem?
- Forum post, The Daily WTF forums

(For the non-programmers: this is a neat proof of why Hungarian Notation is a really bad idea if you want your computer source code to be readable.)

A referendum to end all referendums

Baldock's going to do it, it seems. Muppet.

The question this time is, as he hinted before: Should Citizens Initiated Referenda seeking to repeal or amend a law be binding?

Maybe he regrets having such a loaded question last time. Had the previous one actually asked 'do you want the smacking law repealed', and still got a large vote, it might have have been taken seriously.

This one wouldn't be if it was held now, and I'm not convinced it will be if held in a year or two. It's a frivolous waste of everyone's time and money to take this to a referendum.

I propose a referendum question of my own. You must promise to answer truthfully, 'yes' or 'no'.

Will you either answer 'no' to this question or refuse to vote in future pointless referendums?

(This trick is known as Coercive Logic.)

Unicycle comment of the day

Some dudes drinking beer in Waitangi Park, surprised but highly entertained to encounter a nocturnal unicyclist:
- Is that hard?
(me) - Not really!
- That's the randomest thing ever!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

iGovt and the Identity Verification Service

This promises some entertainment: the IVS project is not dead yet. A few months ago it looked like it was, but now the government is trying to get people inspired about its world-changing revolutionaryness.

This iGovt thing is in two parts:
  • A logon service: basically you get a single username / password, plus maybe a physical token, that you can use whenever you have to log in to any application using the service. Like the key you get when you buy an apartment.
  • An identity verification service: this lets you prove who you are as a new user of an application. Like the address and passport credentials you show to open a bank account.
The logon part (formerly the Government Logon Service, then rebranded 'iGovt Logon' almost as soon as it was live) has been running for a while, with disappointing takeup - even though you have to get a special ministerial exemption to NOT use it for a new government project.

The IVS part has been in the design stage for ages.

The logon part has limited takeup because it gives an application nothing on its own - there's a big implementation cost without any gain. This is because it's only useful once your physical identity has been established, which needs to be done when you first use each application. iGovt Logon only tells the app that you have an iGovt logon, not who you are - it lets the app see that you are the same user as last time. The app still has to verify, outside the iGovt Logon service, which person the user ID corresponds to, and what access (if any) they should be allowed. In fact, the system is explicitly designed NOT to provide, say, the IRD with an identifier that it can correlate with the same user's account at Housing NZ.

In other words, you only benefit from using iGovt Logon if your users access multiple apps using it, and even then, the benefit is to the users (convenience and security of using a single login), rather than the implementors and maintainers of the apps.

IVS is supposed to solve part of the 'who is this account' problem - it will 'prove' who you are for the initial registration with a new application, and let you share some of your personal details. Annoyingly, it STILL doesn't help with the 'which people should have access and how much' problem: you still need your existing provisioning system for anything that isn't 'everyone in NZ'.

The interesting twist: every project that launches with iGovt Logon in the meantime has a big incentive NOT to use IVS when it becomes available. This is because those projects have already implemented their own alternatives to IVS - typically whatever local user-provisioning system and manual checks those agencies use already. Switching to IVS will require a load of new development effort and will be risky for already-live projects.

There's also a big bootstrapping problem. Unless IVS provides seriously improved fraud detection or financial guarantees (which I doubt), it will never make economic sense for a new project to use IVS until it is fully available and everyone has it. You don't want to implement TWO identity / use provisioning systems for your app just so that some initial-trial IVS users can use their new ID.

Therefore projects will only use IVS if they are compelled to (read: bankrolled from the IVS development budget), or if they are being done by whatever big contractor (IBM, EDS) gets the tender and has a vested interest in pushing it. It will get mandated for government projects if it gets far enough, although that mandate for iGovt Logon doesn't seem to work so well.

Unicycle comment of the day

From some oddly dispirited-looking skater types near the waterfront:
- Why don't you just get a bike.
- Yeah, that's so much harder?
(they needed help from Paul Graham on their intonation)

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Quote of the day

One of the occupational hazards of living there is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences.
- Paul Graham

Don't feed the terrorists

So three of the UK's so-called 'liquid bombers' (though not the other five) got convicted last Monday in their second trial.

I think the way this case has been handled is somewhat questionable.

We have:
  • The scrapping of the UK's double-jeopardy law when there is 'new evidence'. The accused were allowed to be tried a second time after the first jury didn't find them guilty of attempted bombing, but only the lesser charges - which wasn't good enough for the prosecutors.
  • The second trial used surveillance evidence obtained by the NSA in the US. Despite a lot of ranting about this being part of the notorious illegal surveillance program, it looks like there actually were warrants for this in the US. However, evidence obtained by interception like this is apparently not legal in the UK, so they went back and retrospectively got a US court order to have Yahoo disclose the old emails, making the evidence legit. This seems a little sketchy. It makes the initial rule rather pointless for things like emails, which will usually still be there when you go back with your warrant. Also, as I understand it, this wasn't new evidence - the prosecution supposedly had it already, it's just that the NSA didn't want it published then.
  • Having two trials like this not only costs 135 million pounds (and we thought the David Bain case was an epic!), it also gives the defense a huge disadvantage. The prosecution gets to withhold evidence in the first trial, then if they don't get the conviction they want, they can introduce it later as 'new evidence' to prompt a second trial. Would you want the defense to be allowed to do that?
  • There's the question of whether these guys were ever going to get anywhere with their intended choice of bombing materials. The Register had an excellent article on this way back. Admittedly this may be irrelevant to a conspiracy charge, but it does put the nature and sophistication of the threat in perspective - and the hysteria of the overreactions. Not just the abandonment of long-held civil liberties and common sense, but also all the entertaining security theatre, such as banning shampoo and baby milk from aircraft, while mixing the deadly discarded liquids in the bin next to the busy security checkpoint.
  • Don't even get me started on the extension of the detention-without-charge period.

If it was all done within the law, at least it demonstrates that it's possible to convict for these crimes without security agencies needing special powers to spy on absolutely everyone. 'Terrorists' are not magical criminals in some special category that should cause us to abandon all the usual rules and react in panic. They are just criminals, and should be pursued as such.

I have no problem with the security services going after terrorists, but in the long term, the way to combat the mentality that leads people to these extremes is to pursue them with the high standards a policing and criminal justice system is supposed to uphold. Maintaining a rigid and very visible policy of equal justice, fairness and legality of investigation is the way to change things.

Panicking the populace, and bending all the rules to get the convictions you want - this is just feeding the us-and-them mentality, the disillusionment and the self-righteous thinking that leads people to act in mass-murderous ways. All you achieve is to breed more terrorists.

Just treat them like trolls. Don't feed them.

Unicycle comment of the day

From some girl in a group waiting near the lagoon for some sports thing or other:
(points) - Oooooh, a unicyclist!!!!!!!1!11!!
Like this was the most incredible thing ever to happen to her. I waved back, happy to help.

I worried that the rest of her day might be similarly exciting - there's a risk it could all prove too much.

Things I've learnt from Mythbusters

  1. You can get killed by someone else firing a gun into the air in a wild act of 4th-of-July glee. (Although not if they fire it straight up, because the bullets don't fall straight.)
  2. When you get convicted for this in San Francisco, it is called negligent celebratory gunfire.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Quote of the day

I bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork.
- Groucho Marx, At the Circus

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Quote of the day

You play cards the way you should live your life, and you live your life the way you should play cards.
- Poker player, Lucky You

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Quote of the day

When the tide goes out, that's when you find out who's been swimming naked.
- Warren Buffett

Friday, 11 September 2009

Quote of the day

If you stuck a lump of coal up his arse, you'd have a diamond in a fortnight.
Magnolia (2006)

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Quote of the day

- You're gonna look ridiculous.
- Yeah, well, when enough people look ridiculous, it starts to look normal.
I Could Never Be Your Woman

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Quote of the day

- Years ago you trusted my opinion.
- Years ago you were easier to trust.
A Love Song For Bobby Long

Medical board recommends stimulant addiction as a productivity measure

So the Queensland Health Department says doctors should overdose on caffeine so they can work insanely long shifts.

Apparently the Department toyed with recommending various other stimulants, but settled on caffeine, since it's so great for calm judgment and focus when consumed to excess.

Presumably these 'official guidelines' were written by somebody crazed by a 72-hour energy drink binge.

The results of that brainstorm - or indeed the doctor's work - might be termed red bull shift.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Paul Graham on writing

Essayist Paul Graham has an essay on styles of essays.

I've been eagerly awaiting each of his pieces for a while now. There's always an amazing level of insight, and he has a very concise, blunt and economical writing style which I find interesting.

I like that he sees the main purpose of writing essays as being a way to bring out new ideas during the process of writing. That's what I'm finding here, particularly with a couple of things I'm working on but haven't posted yet. It also makes it feel a little less useless to spend time writing when I don't have a lot of people to read it yet.

Quote of the day

You know what I hate most about being a public figure?

The public.
- Peter's Friends

Sunday, 6 September 2009


This folding electric bike was on the TV news here a couple of days back.

It's a very original design, and looks kind of fun, but I can't see it becoming widespread because the riding position is too novel. Because you're leaning back slightly and with handlebars beside and behind you, people won't feel safe enough.

Imagine riding it down a hill. That position is going to feel unstable and exposed without the subjective 'barrier' / 'protection' of handlebars in front of you, and with the perception that you'll be shifted forwards if you brake, rather than being in an already 'braced' position by having some of your weight on handlebars in front.

I'll stick to my unicycle I think - easier to fall off cleanly.

Liberty-as-means libertarianism allows restricting freedoms

Paradox of the day: libertarianism, considered as a tool for allowing society the freedom to adapt to new conditions, ought to include the freedom to impose local restrictions on freedom, because sometimes that's a good way to experiment with adaptations to local societal conditions.

Using Sullivan's terms from the linked article: I guess the paradox only really arises when you take a relatively absolute (!) view of how to apply liberty-as-means libertarianism in practice, and when you do that, you're actually closer to liberty-as-goal libertarianism anyway.

Saturday, 5 September 2009


So it looks like we may have a referendum on referendums, timed to coincide with the next election and generally cause trouble - providing Larry Baldock can get enough support this time.

The last one got a lot of bad press for being such a huge waste of money, but I think voter turnout - though low - was sufficiently large that, if he campaigns hard enough, he'll probably get the required 10% of voters to sign the triggering petition for this one, since the majority vote was on the side likely to be annoyed that no law change happened.

He does a lot of whingeing in his press release about constitutional inadequacies. Some of that may be worth considering, but of all the ways to address this problem, he's chosen one very likely to get a lot of media attention and criticism and to cost the country a good bit of money, but not very likely at all to change anything substantial. It smacks (sorry) of self-publicity.

Also, as The Standard points out, he's not really in a great position for being self-righteous about fair democratic processes, since a good chunk of his funding for these theatrics appears to come from a hundred-million-a-year US fundamentalist christian group which spent nearly USD$600,000 on lobbying in 2007 alone.

iPredict My Portfolio customization

Following on from something I thought of yesterday and posted on the iPredict forums, I decided to have a go at customizing iPredict's My Portfolio page. I wanted to make it easier to see the information I'm interested in when placing limit orders to trade on stock movements.

To do this I've written a Greasemonkey script, which uses javascript to read some values from the tables on the page, and adds extra columns correlating the current stock holdings with the active orders and watchlist.

It works purely on the information already on the HTML page and visible in the page source - it doesn't make any requests to the server, so I think it should fall within iPredict's terms and conditions.

To get it, download the current ipredict-portfolio.js from my repository on github here.

To use it, see the comments at the top of the file. Basically:
  • Use Firefox (tested on 3.0.13, will probably work on 3.5 if Greasemonkey does)
  • Install the Greasemonkey firefox addon
  • Install ipredict-portfolio.js as a userscript in Greasemonkey, for URLs matching the pattern* (the iPredict My Portfolio page).
  • The script will apply its changes whenever you view that page in iPredict.

This will probably break whenever iPredict change their site layout; I may provide an updated version at the above page if I am still using it myself.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Make your own ASCII art:

                  =??ZZOOOO8ZZZ$.               ..:~:.                          
                 . ZOD8ZOOZOZZOO8Z,         .,I7$Z$7$7                          
                         . .=88OZO8OOOOOO88OO7II7II7O=..                        
                            ....ODOOO8O888OO77II7~. ..                          
                                    . .?OZ.      .                              
                                  .  .?:+.,                                     
                            . ..+?$ZZOOZ8$,.O8O8ZZ$O . .                        
    . $$OOOO7:..................~~:......:=.:,,,,,......::......+$$OOOO.        
      .OO88OO$?...,,.....:.,.......,.......~.~... IZI+,.......I=$OO88.          
         . $OOOOOO77:.........:.....=.......:.......:.I7$$OOOOO+.               

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Solar power stations in space

I'm not sure building solar panels in space and beaming it back down is the most efficient use of energy research funding right now, let alone the most efficient way (in terms of lifetime operating costs) to make energy originating from the sun available on the earth's surface.

Earth-bound solar, wind and tidal generation seem like a more obvious and immediately available way to get at it.

If you must do it in space, then all those research funds would be better spent now on space elevator development or similar launch technologies - at least then the eventual power plant might actually have reasonable launch costs, by the time the required solar and microwave tech is ready. Oh, and ultra-cheap launch tech might also have one or two spinoff benefits in the meantime...

Contact lens displays

Having read far too much science fiction, I've been eagerly awaiting progress in wearable computers and augmented reality over the next few decades - something rather more immersive than the current crop of mobile phones will be nice. There are already one-eye head-up-display overlays available, and chunky google-glasses, but what if you could have a near-invisible display with you all the time, right on your eyeball?

A research group at the University of Washington is working towards contact lens LED displays. They've already managed to make something with a (very) low-res grid of working LEDs. Nice.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Unicycle comment of the day

From two stoners in a car parked near the waterfront:
Uoh, Krusty the Clown!
Interesting viewpoint.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Vertical gardens

I hope city wall-gardens like this become more widespread - beats the usual glass and concrete facades.

Update: hmm, maybe they could get this gravity-defier to do the garden maintenance.