Gittens on the privatisation of Telstra

SMH – Ross Gittens: Howard’s crossed line on Telstra. Interesting read.

I can’t help but agree with Ross on this point:

The best way to have done that was to split Telstra’s copper network monopoly (“wholesale”) business from its retail business competing directly with the other telcos. Once you’d done that, you could have privatised the retail business without a worry and perhaps even the wholesale business once you were confident its prices to retailers were adequately regulated.

Theme switching

Some of you may have noticed I’ve been a bit of a theme-slut on this blog the past few weeks. I still haven’t found the right theme for what I’m after, and I don’t have the time to build my own.

The current theme is black minimalism theme which is nice to look at, to be sure, but is still not quite there. (Plus I can’t seem to get the tagging plugin working). It’s based on K2, which I’ve trialed previously, but is a single column jobby (which means the blogroll and links and about are all at the bottom of the page).

I also really wish K2 was widgets aware – hopefully they will start to move in that direction soon. Mebbe I’ll have time one day soon to actually do the minimalist design I have in my head. Until then, expect the themes to keep a changin’.

Mobile internet

I keep reading reports that the “mobile internet” (that is accessing the web via mobile phones or wireless PDAs) is not growing because of usability issues due to screen size – that is navigation doesn’t work or too hard to read/find information.

As an avid net user I can tell you the reason I don’t use it more is because the bandwidth charges here in Australia are simply out of the ballpark – Telstra charges almost $20 per MB.

I think if it were cheaper more people would try to use it, building demand and making it worthwhile for developers to create dedicated sites. But there’s already a solution for content sites: RSS.

As I see it, RSS would be the perfect technology for mobiles: It’s light-weight in terms of markup to content ratio; it’s easy to navigate (next item, previous item, scroll); it would allow pre-configuring the sites you want to visit and have the reader go off and get the goods without having to type in addresses using a phone keypad (which is a real usability issue).

So why don’t people use it? A lot of people probably do already, to be sure, but the reason I don’t is that it would cost a bomb to update your feeds. I once monitored my traffic using a laptop to update my feeds on a paid wifi service – around 2MB worth of download. That’d be about $40 at Telstra’s rates. Fugedaboutit…

Syncing solutions like NetNewsWire/NewsGator integration would reduce this significantly, but it’s still only really an option for business-people that can expense it to the business, or when a person has enough spare cash to burn.

That’s what I find fascinating about the “River of News website” concept that Dave Winer is promoting at the moment. Why do we need to create dedicated sites to display RSS feeds for mobile devices, when a good RSS reader would do the job? Mebbe I’m missing something…

mime_magic on Mac OS X

Propeller head alert: Most of you won’t be interested in this, but I had to get the mime_magic module working with Apache/PHP on Mac OS X 10.4 this morning, and thought I’d write up the steps.

The following steps require the XCode developer tools to be installed on your system (these are included on the Mac OS X install CDs). The steps also assume that PHP4.4.1 is installed (the default for 10.4.4+).

Apache

  1. Uncomment the following lines in /etc/httpd/httpd.conf
    LoadModule mime_magic_module libexec/httpd/mod_mime_magic.so
    AddModule mod_mime_magic.c
  2. Update the following section to reflect your system setup
    <IfModule mod_mime_magic.c>
    MIMEMagicFile /etc/httpd/magic
    </IfModule>

PHP

  1. Download the matching version of PHP for your system.
  2. Extract archive and go to the “/ext/mime_magic” in the extracted directory.
  3. Open terminal and run:
    phpize
    ./configure
    make
    make install
  4. Note down the installed directory
  5. Update extension_dir value to match installed directory – e.g.:
    extension_dir = "/usr/lib/php/extensions/no-debug-non-zts-20020429/"
  6. Add a section to PHP.ini containing:
    [mime_magic]
    extension=mime_magic.so
    mime_magic.magicfile = "/etc/httpd/magic"

    where “/etc/httpd/magic” matches your system setup
  7. Restart apache (using Sharing system preference pane)

Thanks to Andrew at RWTS for walking me through most of the above to get it running…

Update: Unfortunately this breaks when using PHP from the command line. Keeps complaining about:

NSLinkModule() error
Symbol not found: _OnUpdateString

Any thoughts much appreciated…

Update 01-Sep-2006: With some more help from Andrew I recompiled PHP (with mime_magic as a compile option) and the problem is resolved. Had issues with PEAR, but was able to resolve them using the PEAR bits of this tutorial (I had to run curl http://go-pear.org | sudo php).

It all seems to be working, but we’ll wait and see if anything else comes up…

Renewable energy in Australia

I’ve been participating in some interesting discussions over at ActNow! (namely these threads: Nuclear power for Australia and Sustainable energy sources) and they got me thinking.

One of the primary criticisms I hear/read about renewable energy is that it won’t solve the problem by itself – that we need more than renewable energy to support our population’s energy needs.

And I generally agree with that – except it’s often used as an argument not to use renewables (e.g. that we need nuclear)! I think I’ve worked out my response to that line of argument now: “is the glass half empty or half full?”

Let’s say wind energy, in its current form, can only provide 20% of our power needs. And lets say solar can only provide the same amount. (Both of those figures are completely plucked out the air btw, I don’t know what our true capacity would be). And let’s say we agree with the scientists that we need to reduce our emissions by 60% below 1990 levels by 2050. Let’s also say that we can reach full capacity for both wind and solar in 10 years time.

That means that based on current technology (which will improve) we can in 10 years time (the earliest that the government reckons it will take for nuclear power to be a reality in Australia) reduce our CO2 emissions by 40% – over half of a 40 year target in 10 years!

And that’s not taking into consideration energy efficiency (say 10%+) and improvements in wind and solar technology (recent developments suggest that a 30%-50% improvement in efficiency is not out of the question). And in that time we might well have found the right solution to reduce the remaining 20%+ too.

There are obvious political and commercial realities that would impact this, of course. Placement of wind farms and the phasing out of existing coal power stations among them. But don’t you think this can be overcome with some political will?

Certainly it seems this is a much easier path than trying to establish a nuclear industry in Australia. What do you think?

(BTW, I just realised that this all links to what I was saying the other day in my review of Who killed the electric car. Seems to be the same tactic – promising technology, meets part of the demand, but vested interests and political maneuvering see it postponed for some “just around the corner” solution.)

WWF is hiring

Well, they’ve been hiring for lots of different positions, but this one involves me 😉

We’ve just posted an ad for a full-time web developer. The link has more details. Please pass this around to anyone you think has the skills and might be interested.

My role will be changing a bit once we get the right person on board – I’ll be moving more into tactics and strategy with a focus on social media (blogs, Flickr, YouTube etc.) which regular readers of this blog will know is a real passion of mine. We haven’t finalised what the role will look like yet, but it’s exciting just thinking about it!

Who killed the electric car

Who killed the electric car - inset

Last night I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak at Who killed the electric car (IMDb page) which is due out in cinemas in Australia on 2 November this year.

I’d heard a bit about the film, and I was keen to see it – it seems to be custom made for someone like me – a technology-junky with an environmental bent – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The film primarily follows the fate of the EV1 electric car, introduced in 1996 to the Californian market by General Motors (under the Saturn brand) in response to California’s “Zero Emissions Vehicle” (ZEV) legislation that aimed to have 10% of cars sold in California having no tailpipe emissions by 2003. Electric cars were the chosen approach to solve the problem because General Motors (GM) had previewed a concept car, called the Impact, prior to the legislation being introduced and seemed the most promising and realistic technology at the time.

If we are to believe the filmmakers, and the many people they interviewed, electric vehicles were a roaring success – with waiting lists for cars like the EV1 numbering in the thousands. (As an aside GM contests in the film that the waiting lists looked good on paper, but that individuals willing to put their money on the table were limited. Given Toyota’s backlog of orders for the Prius in the U.S. I tend to believe that GM are perhaps not completely on the level in this regard.)

And yet GM, and other manufacturers, were not convinced and eventually withdrew the cars from the market. Through the non-renewal of leases, in what seems to me to be an unusual arrangement (it seems all electric vehicles were leased – no-one was able to purchase the cars outright). This meant that all of the cars “sold” to customers were eventually returned to the manufacturer where, contrary to car company claims, the cars were destroyed – even though the cars worked perfectly well and many customers wanted to pay out the residual on the lease to own the cars outright.

After presenting some background, the film steps into a pseudo-murder-mystery mode – looking at the various factors that may (or may not) have been the cause of the electric car’s demise.

I spent most of the film in disbelief, that such a promising technology that even I didn’t know existed (as someone who follows green-tech pretty closely I found that quite astounding) could end up on the scrap-heap. What was most surprising to me is that there seemed to be a significant amount of infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles, which is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing any alternative fuel initiative.

The film goes into great detail about the vested interests and political maneuvering that caused the ZEV program to be revoked. A few minutes were devoted to hydrogen fuel cell technology which has replaced electric vehicles in the U.S. as the “next silver bullet”. The film made a pretty strong case that this re-focusing is a delaying tactic on the part of all involved, when a perfectly good technology already exists, and that hydrogen fuel cells were unlikely to be a realistic for some time to come, if ever at all.

They also suggested that the Japanese car manufacturers, such as Toyota, saw the development of hybrids by U.S. manufacturers (which began to be developed as a “compromise” between the Californian government and car manufacturers) as a potential threat and decided to enter the game and develop their own technology. When the U.S. manufacturers dropped the ball, Toyota and Honda entered the U.S. market and have done extremely well. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with the lack of government foresight in Australia regarding renewable energy, but I digress.

By the end of the film I was feeling pretty angry about the whole thing – dumbfounded at how far backward things had gotten. (The film also takes a bit of a “bag everyone” approach – no-one comes out smelling rosy really, not even Toyota who are considered by many, including myself, as leaders in this area.) Thankfully the film took a quick detour and had a look at what’s on the horizon – plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, conversions of existing cars to all electric drive-trains, and improvements in battery technology.

The inventor of the battery technology that found its way into the second generation EV1 was a highlight, demonstrating some solar technology that looked very interesting. But most of all it showed that the glimmer of a better future that the EV1 represented is starting to find its way out into the world – in new technologies, alternative car companies, and evangelists starting to make a dent in the entrenched industries and vested interests. It just seems such a shame that the momentum created by the EV1 and the ZEV legislation is only just starting to be rebuilt.

I’d definitely recommend the film – certainly got me thinking and inspired me. It demonstrated that with political willpower and strong public support, solutions exist to solve a significant proportion of the issues related to car emissions (namely smog/health issues and global warming).

Texas to build 11 new coal-fired power stations

At work I’ve learnt beyond a shadow of a doubt that global warming is real and societally we need to change the way we generate electricity. Australia is the largest greenhouse gas emitter per-capita, but overall our impact is minimal on the global scale.

The U.S. is the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. TXU, Texas’ largest electricity provider, is planning 11 new coal-fired power stations in the coming months, which will emit 78 million tons of carbon dioxide. (For comparison, Australia has around 32 coal-fired power stations – this map shows some of them.)

U.S. based Environmental Defense is running an email campaign urging the head of TXU to not build the coal-fired power stations.

This decision will impact all of us – not just Texans – so it’d be great if you could consider sending an email, as a concerned global citizen, to TXU.

Thanks…