Beam “Slavery to Star trek” to Edinburgh

What use is my dormant blog if not for blegging?

My friend Andreea Kindryd started doing stand-up comedy at age 68 and has recently started performing an amazing autobiographical show. After great reviews at the Adelaide Festival she has the chance to perform “Slavery to Star Trek” at the Edinburgh Festival this year, but she needs some help to get there (and back).

Come along to a performance in Sydney later this month, or visit the Pozible project pageand pledge a little support.

Wondering if there is a dog

Some parents of kids in Mr 5’s class have expressed concern that the school-hours scripture classes are a little too “Fire And Brimstone!” Some kids have been coming home from school talking about death and pretty upset about their parents’ prospects for admission into heaven.

We hadn’t noticed anything particularly odd. A Moses colouring activity came home with a light saber once. At age 5 everything looks better with a light saber.

I decided to check out what Mr 5 thought about his scripture classes.

I don’t have this captured perfectly, but you’ll get the gist:

They’re always talking about God and Jesus. Mostly Jesus. They really like Jesus.

Jesus is really powerful. She has some big dogs who can cure blindness by licking people.

Really big dogs.

He hasn’t heard the joke about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic.

Scooter stereotypes

I’m currently in Denver. On assignment!

As my family and I will be here for some time, and we only have the one car, we’ve discussed getting something like a motor scooter for me to ride to work. A moped. Something like a Vespa.

J & I had a discussion about how cheap they are to run and how good they are for the environment.

I used to have one way back when I was in school, so I know the thrill of filling up each week with 90 cents worth of petrol. The slings and arrows of riding a moped in rural and regional Australia just helped to make me stronger. Don’t taunt me again, I could be pushed too far like a moped-riding John Rambo.

Getting a moped seemed like an idea worth pursuing. A potential problem we both noted was that neither of us had ever seen a motor scooter in the USA. We speculated that they’re considered too gay, or French, or both. Maybe, and this was the conclusion we snarkily agreed to, they’re unpatriotic in their frugal fuel use (notwithstanding the huge numbers of hybrids now on the roads).

As if to illustrate why having only one vehicle was a problem that needed solving, on Friday I was supposed to be picked up from work at 4:30 but I had a meeting that ran late. I lost track of time and I had no mobile phone. J waited for me in the car park for a while and then drove home with the kids to wait for my call. It wasn’t for another hour that I got in touch with her to arrange a pickup. We arranged a new time and I headed down to the car park to catch some late afternoon outdoors.

In the car park was the first motor scooter I had seen in America. We were proven wrong, Americans do care about fuel usage and don’t care about looking French, gay, or Italian!

I waited for 15 minutes for J to arrive, and noticed something odd. The back wheel of the scooter was slowly rotating, as if moved by the breeze. I got closer and realized that the engine had been left running.

When J arrived she said that she had seen it earlier when she came to pick me up and it had its engine on then as well. It had been running for 90 minutes or more.

Was this some form of effete fuel-wasting ceremony designed to exorcise perceived moped-gayness? Was it a French or Italian spy proving themselves to be American?

I could have ridden it away to rescue it into my laté-sipping life of looking like a felonious, gay, French-Italian, greenie, but I think I’ll just get a bicycle.

Letters to the editor

Some troublemaker managed lead letter in the Sydney Morning Herald today.

As the debate about housing affordability continues, I would like to see more discussion of the attitude towards renters.

It’s like a dirty secret in which we are all complicit. Once we’ve got our own patch, we seem happy to forget about the miseries of renting. There are no substantive policies or meaningful law reform. With renting recognised as the only option available to many over a lifetime, the time to act is now.

Renters are treated like second-class citizens by agents and owners alike. While there are clearly many fair landlords, and real estate agents, we see this as good fortune, rather than a right to expect. I was a good tenant: paid rent on time, looked after the places I’ve occupied, got on with the neighbours and still had humiliating battles to get my bond back.

Managing rental properties would be the lowest rung of real estate business and it seems to fall to the most junior staff. Determining the quality of our steam cleaning was often in the hands of a 20-year-old trainee. As I was young, too, this was merely galling. It must be excruciating for older renters.

Dealing directly with an owner is usually worse. One, when asked to fix the hot water service, launched into a tale of his kitchen renovation woes. Tell someone who cares. Learn a little about your responsibilities.

In a friend’s case, the bond was put into the owner’s business, and had to be paid back in instalments. Just weeks ago, someone else I know had an owner change his mind and tell him to move out just days after he’d moved in. With no lease signed at that point, what was he to do? Although I hear good things about the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, it is still a fight that many don’t have the stomach for.

Renting hinges on a relationship that is fundamentally unequal and is founded on private return to the owner. The expectations of the tenants and their ability to plan and live their lives come a distant second.

Why can a business enjoy a five-year lease, with an option to extend, but the shelter which people need to live can be removed with minimal notice? Until this is addressed, nobody will see renting as an alternative to home ownership.

Kudos to J! It’s the biggest day in letter-writing in our house since J got lead letter, and 2 of the 3 other letters on the same topic were from friends of ours too.

I have vivid memories of talking to our landlord of yore about how we were tired of waiting for some long lost blue-collar member of his family to clear up some time to come fix our hot water service. Two days without hot water in winter would usually constitute a need for “emergency plumbing.” He began to tell me about how his family suffered when they were renovating their bathroom (not the kitchen as stated above — oops). I objected, saying that if we had rented through an agent, or any other landlord we would have at least seen a plumber by now. “Are you implying I’m not a good landlord?” he said. “I’m not implying anything. I’m telling you you’re a bad landlord.”

That felt good, and later that day we had working hot water again. We were informed that our rent was increasing soon after.

Occupations that are difficult to describe

I recently discovered that a lot of parents and kids at my son’s school think I work for Lego.

My usual “I’m a software engineer… I do stuff with phones and networking and software and stuff” might be the right mixture of tedious-sounding and insufficiently memorable to cause temporary amnesia in those not learned in the appropriate arts. That state of mind might open the door for the Lego meme to slip in.

My son swears he’s not the source of this rumour.

When I worked with ATMs at a bank, I used to prefer “I’m a software guy” to “I look after the ATM network management software at bank X” based on former allowing me to move the conversation somewhere other than vocation and the latter getting me bailed up with wild-eyed rants about appalling ATM service. Unlike ATMs, I’m not unhappy about being associated with Lego. I just wonder if this will end like the Seinfeld episode where George pretends he’s a marine biologist.

Are there any life or death situations that can only be resolved through encyclopaedic knowledge of the Lego product line?

Yellow Bird Black Spider

One of my current personal favourite kids stories is a library book one of the kids borrowed recently: “Yellow Bird Black Spider

It’s only a 5 minute read, and might be a bit young, but it’s a nice story with a very satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis:

Yellow bird is a quirky and idiosyncratic individual. Yellow bird enjoys strumming guitar on the beach (with an amplifier that goes up to eleven), sailing, and having baths with his stripy socks on. Black spider suggests a way for yellow bird to act more like a bird on every second page .

Anyway, I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I say they all live happily ever after.

Except for spider.

Deploying my parents on the Internet

Every time mum and dad visit any of their kids or their wired friends, there is usually a moment where they ooh and ahh at the miracle of the Internet. Touring the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, watching the Sydney-Hobart Yachts update in Google Earth, seeing storms roll by on Bureau of Meteorology Radar — they were certainly interested in getting on the Internet. “Why,” my siblings and I wondered, “had they not got themselves connected?”

The problem

Mum and Dad wanted to get this Internet thing to explore, and to exchange email and photographs with their family and friends.

The problem was they didn’t know how to begin or how much it would cost. Hardware and software and the terrors of the Internet all blended into a very mysterious and threatening challenge.

“How do you get a virus?”

“How do you talk to someone?”

We tried to explain, but their eyes glazed over.

The desire to get on the Internet was really 80% mum and 20% dad. Mum and dad have run a small business in regional NSW since about 1975. Mum learned how to type on a typewriter when the small business wasn’t going so well and it looked like mum would have to get a second job to keep things afloat. Thankfully that scare remained just a scare and mum rarely ever used her typing skill, or the typewriter, again.

Dad is a tradesman. Although he has held many administrative roles in various community and charitable groups and has written many quotes for the business he has never really used a keyboard.

The plan

For Christmas, my siblings and I pitched in to get mum and dad deployed on the Internet. We were all going to be home for a week with them over Christmas, so it was a perfect time to impart all of our knowledge about what it is like to be on the Internet and answer any questions that came up.

I put together a pretty basic computer — a new cheap Windows XP desktop computer with built-in NVIDIA video, a very basic AMD CPU and 1GB of ram. I tacked on an old 17″ LCD display, and about $60 worth of Canon printer/scanner/flash-card reader. I put a wireless network card in the back too, as the path from the incoming phone line to the “computer room” could not be cabled easily.

Rationale: What I would like to have done was load them up with Fedora Core 6, with which I have had success with my kids. This would have been free, and saved money on operating system and virus scan software. The decision to go with XP is a combination of cheap-ass printer driver support, frightening Linux wireless support and a lack of local (to my parents’ house) knowledge of Linux to help them when we kids weren’t around to help. All of their friends run Windows, it seems. They don’t seem to know anyone who owns a Mac except me.

I had a spare F-Secure Internet Security 2006 license from getting a “Family Pack” so I installed that for them. I also installed most of Google Pack and set mum and dad up with Gmail, Picasa, and Google Docs.

Rationale: Mum and dad want email. My experience is that most of the security and technical problems with email come from user error and the complexity of email clients, virus and spam plugins. Gmail doesn’t really require any configuration, comes with an attachment virus scanner, and spam protection. They need never worry about deleting things and if their computer fails for some reason, their email and documents are backed up off-site.

For security and training we invested in a 48 page exercise book and pencil and wrote down anything that came up. Passwords, usernames, sites, friend’s email addresses, how to launch a program; all this and more was written into the exercise book. We judged the risk was reasonably low that someone would make off with the book and steal their money or identity. All the same, the book gets put away from the computer when it’s not needed.

One day I’ll introduce them to Password Safe, but that time hasn’t come yet.

Taking some advice from my workmates, I decided to order a basic ADSL package from the reliable Internode with a random wireless router bundled. Until they’re `on their feet we’re paying $39.95/month for 8GB of downloads and 512kbps/128kbps (down/up). They don’t need anything like 8G of download quota, but the cheaper plans were 256kbps, and that doesn’t fit my definition of broadband. When they start paying for it themselves, they might want to tolerate slower bandwidth for a cheaper plan, but that decision is a little way off yet. Since making the decision to go with a non-cheap-ass plan, Internode have withdrawn their cheaper plans from the market. We might have to churn to a provider with cheaper plan when the time comes.

In general the only thing on mum and dad’s PC that needs to be backed up is photographs. Thankfully Picasa has built-in support for backups and the PC came with Nero OEM as well.

How did it go?

At first, the training was unexpectedly slow. The first task was navigating to, and logging into every account I’d set up for them. She couldn’t log in to anything and I didn’t pick up why until we were both really annoyed. She would type her password and fail to log in then I would type the same password and succeed. Although mum had once learned to type, the muscle memory must have got rewired over the years because she kept hitting SPACE when she meant to press SHIFT.

Training mum and dad about what phishing is was a bit more of a challenge. They were a bit nervous. “How do you get a virus?” was the first question. I talked about not downloading anything and installing it unless they were absolutely sure it was ok. We looked at Microsoft’s automatic updates and learned how to recognize them, and that they would usually arrive on Wednesdays. They prefer to run IE7 even though Firefox was installed (Firefox isn’t as memorable as Internet Explorer), so there is some assistance in mitigating phishing and browser hijack attacks, but I’m afraid their ability to identify threats is still quite poor.

Mum rang me at work one days and announced that been browsing the web when she’d won a laptop by being the lucky 1,000,000th visitor to a site. Thankfully she checked with me to make sure it was legit. She wasn’t entirely surprised to know it was a scam, but she did sound disappointed, having spent an hour taking notes on the terms and conditions.

I recommended that they spend about a year on the Internet before they even contemplated signing up for Internet banking or using their credit card for anything online.

Gmail is the great success story. I don’t think mum knows that there is a difference between email and instant messaging, or that there ever was a difference.

Mum says she couldn’t go back to being without the Internet. Wikipedia, e-mail and just being able to explore and find out about things is too much to give up.

Dad’s not quite so convinced. I think he could live without it, but he does ask mum if she can use the Internet to find out about stuff for him. A lot.

Roar and snore and pour

Moral: From now on I’m going to carry a spare memory card or two with my camera, and swap them around every now and then.

I recently took my son and one of his friends to Roar and Snore at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo for his birthday present. As a relatively fresh owner of a Nikon D40 digital SLR I saw this as an opportunity to give Mr 7 a birthday to remember, and my new camera a good work-out.

Roar and Snore is a chance to see nocturnal animals and the early morning feeding routine up close. There are very few people there other than you, the keepers and the security guards. You sleep overnight in tents pitched for your convenience in the zoo’s Education Centre area.

Our evening started at 6:30pm Sunday night with snacks and the chance to learn about and touch echidnas, pythons, shingleback lizards and wallabies. Many great, once-in-a-lifetime photographs of kids and animals were taken.

The next part of the evening we all went on a tour of the zoo with red torches to see the nocturnal activities of the animals. In this part of the tour flash photography is prohibited. I had prepared by bringing my tripod, a by-product of owning an Astroscan portable telescope (I hadn’t brought the telescope to the zoo).

In minimal lighting with a tripod I was able to take some quite clear photographs of elephants, anteaters, zebras, and tigers. Thankfully the night was overcast and there was a little ambient light, and the animals I was taking photos of were not moving around much. Non-SLR users marveled at my ability to get photos when their cameras were just refusing to operate without flash assistance. “I guess it must be the five second exposure with 1600 ISO,” I bluffed. Many once-in-a-lifetime photographs of animals were taken.

Near the end of the evening we stopped at a spot where there was a clear view of the Sydney CBD, taking in the Opera House and Harbour Bridge from Woolloomooloo to Kirribilli. There was a storm passing by to the South (or so I thought) so the city had a backdrop of impressive clouds and occasional lightning strikes. I took many once-in-a-lifetime photos of Sydney at night with an impressive thunderstorm as a backdrop.

We retired to the camping area, had cups of milk and tea, brushed teeth and went to bed in our tents. Then the most violent electrical storm for years hit Sydney, and us.

Thankfully the tents held out. The kids and I were kept up until about 2am by nature’s disco lightning and percussion solo. No roaring or snoring was evident.

We emerged from out tents at 6am to be treated to breakfast and photo-ops with very friendly hand-raised Koalas (you’re only allowed to hold a Koala if you’re an accredited animal handler).

“Quick! Take a photo of us with the Koala” said Mr 7.

“Memory card is corrupt, please insert a new card” responded my Nikon D40. Many once-in-a-lifetime photos were suddenly gone.

“Hmm,” I thought. I’ll swap out my 4 Gig card for the old 256 Meg card I always carry with me and diagnose the problem with the giant SD card later. Hmm… I don’t appear to be carrying my spare.

So I went through a morning of getting up close to giraffes, zebras, chimpanzees, zoo food preparation, tapirs, thai swimming cats, elephants and birds without being encumbered by a camera.

The SD card is officially dead and took all of my photos with it. A month earlier it had become corrupted in such a way that I had been able to get 99% of the images off it before reformatting it. I didn’t think it was anything more than a temporary glitch at the time.

Yesterday I was hunting through my wallet and my 256 Meg SD card fell out. It was with me all of the time I was at the zoo.

Oh well, it was enjoyable and memorable even without photos.

Flash Asteroids

To teach myself Flash and ActionScript I promised the kids I’d write Asteroids for them. This is a pale imitation but thankfully my kids have never seen the original game. Mr 6 said there should be a level boss with spinning blades and a nasty energy weapon, but this was probably OK for level 1.

I have learned quite a bit from the exercise, but you really don’t want to see the mess of code underneath. The terrible way it presents in a blog post is horror enough for your eyes, dear reader.


The planned Web Services and asteroid collisions with conservation of momentum will have to be debugged into existence another day.

IE users click here (until my ninja Flash embedding skillz improve).

My cat has no nose

Our poor cat Mia is nearly 17 years old. Why poor? She was diagnosed with rampant skin cancer on her nose and ear. After a period of observing just how rampant the cancer was we decided to take our vet’s advice and have her operated on.

Mia is home from surgery now after four days of recuperation. We knew this wasn’t going to be Hollywood-level plastic surgery, but it’s still a shock to see her as a nose-less cat. From the right angle you can avoid seeing that half her right ear is missing and pretend she’s still sweet and cuddly looking, but her new-look snout is more than a little intimidating. Our 3 year old had some fairly serious nightmares the night after we brought her home.

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This post is to remember how she used to look when she had girlish good looks. Even after a litter of 5.