Monday, December 13, 2010

Paris by Wing

Just touched down at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, and having secured an over-priced coffee and croissant your intrepid reporter goes in search of transport to the city.

There, framed in the doorway from the arrivals lounge, a suave local proffers his card: "motorcycle taxi". In halting English, the raffish blade echoes the cards dangerous message: "motorcycle taxi?".

I think I was in, from the part about the motorcycle.

Right outside the door to the terminal, in the dedicated motorcycle parking are not one, but four Honda Goldwings. The presence of the 'wing - the flagship of japanese motorcycle touring and a princely investment for most motorcyclists - in these numbers indicates not just some lone wild entrepreneur in the niche market of one-up travelling light passenger transport.

Turns out its a local custom.

I was interested to see how this could possibly work, with my roll-aboard and laptop bag, but now I started to see that all the issues had been worked out.

Next to me a gallic-looking gentleman off the same flight was loading his considerably larger suitcase on to the luggage rack of an already running 'wing. I had always thought those things were just for decoration - but with some webbing (ocky straps to you Aussies) and a few deft twists the top-heavy looking load was secured and they were off.

While my driver - errr rider - was at the handle-bar mounted GPS punching in the address of my hotel I donned the thick jacket, gloves and helmet. My laptop bag fitted easily in one of the capacious panniers.

Hmm - what was I thinking, part of me said, thinking now of how the pilot on the plane had announced -1 degree celsius temperatures on the ground in Paris as we landed.

No problem - not only did the 'wing turn out to have a heated rear seat, but it was also fitted with a nifty windbarrier for the rear-passenger. Secured to the bike down the frame where the passengers legs go, and then over the seat, this heavy-duty gore-tex style piece of kit effectively covered the whole lower half of my body once on the bike. Nice and toasty!

In a minute or two we were off. I soon saw what the attraction of the bike taxi was for the locals - dealing with the congestion on the motorways, in classic European driving style.

If you've ever been a rider, you'll know what lane splitting is. Also called filtering, or sharing, the practise is a bit hair-raising when you first try it, in the relatively safe slowness of stop-go traffic. There's a little thrill of the slightly illicit, when you cruise between stopped cars to take up a position on the front of the grid at traffic lights. Narrow waisted sport bikes, and scooters are ideal at this sort of thing.

Now take that, and multiply it by 1000.

You have a Honda Goldwing - six cylinder highway beast, at least a meter wide, plus mirrors, travelling along at 100 kpm (that's about 60 miles per hour) between cars and trucks with an inch to spare.

Strangely I was not scared. Dumb-founded. Amazed. Didn't have time for scared.

How the hell was he doing it? Without us dying?

At one point we passed a large Fiat van on one side, and on the other a Citroen was backed over as far as it could toward the barrier and as the 'wing passed thru a gap that I didn't think was there a "clack!" annouced that we'd tipped something against the van on the way through.

I think in engineering circles they call that an interference fit.

It was a feat that was being accomplished in equal parts by skill and split-second judgement, by some sort of Nietzsche-esque nihilism, and by a lot of co-operation with other Parisian road-users.

After we'd been on the choked up highway for some time, I noticed that my rider had both blinkers going, and was using his headlight to flash traffic in the fast lane. I say "fast lane" tho' the traffic was doing around 50 kph in the congestion - but we were doing twice that. Occasionally he would use his horn when the expected gap didn't open up.

Most motorists were completely aware of what the light show coming up behind meant - in the fast lane (the left most lane in Europe) cars would hop to the left, and the next lane over they'd squeeze a little to the right.

The pilot of the 'wing would gun the big six and surge thru just as the gap opened up.

The fact that I'm typing this is a testament to the fact that I survived.

I'm still not sure how.

But I want to do it again anyway.

Vive la différence!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

LCA just got even better

LCA2011 venue - the QUT Z-Block complex
In January 2011 free & open source rockets - like, you know, space rockets - free & open source software, and more free and open source good will than you can shake a stick at all come together for, in QUT's flash facilities (photo left) at Brisbane's beautiful Gardens Point.

And there's another reason why LCA is going to be even better this year.

LCA has long been the most vibrant and enjoyable grass roots technical conference on this side of the equator, but it has - like many other technical conferences - had its share of incidents that pretty sorely detract from that inclusive and productive community spirit.

Yuk. Harassment.

Its not pretty, and we'd all rather we didn't hear about it. But its been pooping on our doorstep for sometime now.

And its time to clean house.

Our broom is the new LCA2011 anti-harassment policy.

It went live on the LCA 2011 site last night and already we're getting a lot of great buzz.

Several of us on the LCA2011 organizing committee, led by yours truly, have been working really hard with the community both in Australia and abroad to pull together this policy - something that can stand against the awful trend; that can help to make LCA more welcoming to a whole range of people who maybe have been put off technical conferences because of that atmosphere.

We hope this will clear the air. It will show that we stand behind the fine print in our T&C which also gives a mention to harassment.

We're also hoping it will provide the courage for other future technical conferences to do their own policy as well.

A lot of the success of our effort has come from standing on the shoulders of the Conference Anti-Harassment Project, championed by Val Aurora and friends. And it has been helped by discussions and input from a whole range of people - you know who you are: thank you!

Got questions? Got thoughts?

Please, leave them here - but can I encourage an approach of first please - most graciously - read the Conference Anti-Harassment resources. If the issue is already answered there its probably just going to attract a "Read the Fine Manual" sort of response. :-)

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to seeing you all at 2011.

Why are you still here - go and register!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

iMiev for Christmas

iMiev in city published with permission of MMAL
Well, I may have to take it all back - it just might be that Mitsubishi can deliver me an iMiev in 2010!

Today I spoke with Mark Whyte of Mitsubishi Motors Australia (MMAL), about the MMAL lease program and about the iMiev roll-out in Australia. True to his word, shortly after getting off the phone an MMAL lease agreement arrived in my inbox. Now I just have to see if we can put together the legals to make all this come together.

You have to hand it to Mitsubishi - they have consistently been delivering on the detail of their undertakings in the production roll-out of EV's in Australia, and on the phone I can see why - Whyte is pragmatic and straight-forward about the iMiev, for example talking about issues of range in Australian conditions.

Under that professionalism you can hear how pleased he (and MMAL) is about the success of the iMiev program so far. All of the cars that MMAL have been able to persuade their parent company in Japan to ship to our shores have been snapped up, even tho' this number was considerably more - 110 units now - than they had originally been earmarked for.

Now it will be up to the reaction of the early-adopting corporates that have signed up to lease the iMiev, to see how the program goes in 2011. Electric vehicles require a radical rethink - and for traditional fleet owners having EV's on the lot is a whole new ball game.

What do we do with that petrol card now? How will drivers of the fleet-owned vehicles handle plugging in?

For my part having been writing about EV's since 2007, the chance to finally have one will be a pretty big deal, and I can't see any problems at all with getting along with the iMiev.

Watch this space and I'll keep you updated on this development!

Sunday, November 21, 2010




Hell freezing over.

And, apparently electric cars in Australia.

Last week I rang Nissan Australia and spoke to one of their reps about when I could buy a Nissan Leaf EV. After all its prominently advertised on their Australian website, and nowhere there does it say that there are any delays in supplying the vehicle.

The context for this is that under the heading "Our Plan for Australia" BetterPlace, the demand side electricity-for-EV's technology supplier says they are "working with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which will be among the first to introduce EVs". Of course to supply electricity for EV's to help us clean the air, and reduce dependence on foreign oil, Better Place actually needs the actual EV's that people will be driving. So when they say they are working with Renault-Nissan, you could be forgiven for thinking that when they "introduce EV's" that we will actually be able to drive them.

"Sorry", I was told by the Nissan rep, "not until 2012".

I also contacted Mitsubishi Motors Australia. Surely their iMiev, which is being trumpeted as the first EV in Australia is available? I personally think the iMiev is likely to be less car than the Leaf, but without the choice, I was willing to compromise. Here we are in 2010, the battle has been won, EV's are here right? Well, EV singular - the iMiev is here, at least, eveb if the Nissan Leaf is not.

As you would expect, there is enormous global demand for this vehicle, and consequently, availability of the i-MiEV will be somewhat restricted for a time. In response to strong demand from the local market however, Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited (MMAL) has negotiated to secure a limited number of i-MiEV vehicles for Australian release.

Mitsubishi's rep went on to say that these cars are only being released to fleet buyers, and in 2011 they plan to release cars to the public. I will believe it when I see it.


Think about where are the cars that are being produced to satisfy this "global" demand going: Japan.

There is much evidence that the profits to be had in their home markets for Japanese EV makers are much greater counting in all factors including government incentives for clean vehicles that don't burn foreign oil.

Japanese auto consumers are also more tech-savvy, and more open to compact cars with advanced features. Why take the risk on markets like Australia, and the USA who are too dumb to even understand an electronic accelerator pedal. Hint: its not cosmic rays interacting with your pedal, its your foot.

However even tho' the manufacturers don't want to ship their cars here, they are not afraid of using their vapourware vehicles to hype their clean car image on their websites. All the while continuing to sell the gas guzzling, road hoggers that we follow the Americans in buying up by the ton.

A footnote about the Nissan Leaf promotional machine - I was contacted by phone by Nissan in October, and offered a chance to test drive the Nissan Leaf at the All-Energy Conference in Melbourne. Unfortunately I was just about to fly internationally for work, and could not take them up on their generous offer to pay all my own costs to appear in Melbourne with 2 days notice.

Had it not been for the international travel I would probably have taken them up on their offer - but it smacked to me of a failed PR effort, since I was aware that they had been running a competition on their website with very similar prospects. It made me wonder if perhaps they had not gotten a lot of entries.

Nissan, Mitsubishi, and others - wake up and smell the profits. People don't want flash websites and broken promises - we want the actual cars. We want clean air and better tomorrows.

And we don't want to have to wait until 2012.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Qt Dev Days 2010

Held at the ginormous San Fran Airport Hyatt hotel, it was a great event for getting amongst Qt hackers both in & outside Nokia

Monday, September 20, 2010

DevDays Coming Up

Long time, no post.

Been working wayyyy too hard, on the linux conf (see previous post) and on work - leading up to the Qt Developer Days!

I have two presentations I'm delivering - click on the image in the margin left or on this link to have a look at the DevDays program.

One of them should be a fairly standard spruicking of the QML/3D pitch. If you haven't heard of it yet try youtube for Danny's great video.

The other one had me guessing for a while - Stunning Mobile Applications - what are they exactly? So I have written a little demo to provide me with some source material.

Both presentations will be up on both programmes - Munich in a couple of weeks (11 October) and San Francisco in early November - so I have four speaking appointments altogether.

I am looking forward to letting my hair down after it all I can tell you. :-)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

BrizVegas hosting LCA in Jan 2011

Great excitement - we're hosting the hugely popular grass-roots Linux conference in my home town of Brisbane, Australia in January 2011.

The conference does the rounds of cities in Australia and New Zealand, and was last in Brisbane in 2002.

For those overseas Brisbane is around an hours drive north of the Gold Coast holiday beaches and is a balmy 30 degrees C (around 85F) in January. So bring your bathing suit. :-)

Yours truly is on the organising committee for lca2011 and we've been toiling away to get the website up and running; and to put together the Call for Papers.

Both went live last night. Whew.

This years conference will have all the things that have become part of, like the mini-confs (I'm lca2011 mini-conf organizer), tutorials, and talks. There'll be some great keynote speakers, and the fun Free and Open Sources community vibe.

The conference will be hosted at QUT in Gardens Point, and some functions will be at the Brisbane Convention & Entertainment Center on the other side of the river.

Of course there's lots more work to do yet, but we've hit a milestone and things are looking good.

Onward to 6 months time and January 2011 - see y'all then in Brisbane.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Th!nk Test Drive

From Th!nk Test Drive

I'm in Oslo, Norway at present and got an opportunity to test drive the wonderful Th!nk city car. This car is all electric - not a hybrid, using no fuel of any kind - and produces zero emissions.

Down at the Aker Brygge area - a redeveloped wharf district teaming with locals and tourists, numbers swelled by the Eurovision Song Contest being held here - a number of car vendors had their wares on display.

I spoke to Amelie of Rohneselmer who was standing next to a pair of Th!nk City cars - one red and one black, and was offered the chance for a test drive! Of course I said yes! A work colleague, who luckily knew the streets better than I came along for the ride.

Amelie took me to the nearby park and handed me the keys. Like any modern car, it had a remote for the rear hatch and for the doors. Also on there was a mysterious silver key that I was later to discover to be very useful.

The start sequence got me first time - unlike the Prius where you simply turn it on, the Th!nk has a traditional key-lock, and you turn it like a petrol car to a spring-loaded ignition position, until the car has powered up, then leave the key to return to the drive position.

After that bit of difficulty mastering the powerup sequence, I was off. The wharf area was chock full of twisty streets, cobbles and hazards, crossings and gotchas - the light, nimble Th!nk went exactly where I pointed it, and with no gear shift to worry about I was able to quickly negotiate my way onto some broader streets.

Here the cars pep really showed up the gas guzzlers, leaping away from the lights before the neighbouring BMW's and Vovlo's. Its smaller size meant that gaps were easy to take, plus a great turning circle, and very good visibility out the copious glass made me feel confident around the city streets.

Soon we found our way into a lot of small cobbled streets with sidewalk cafes, and families out enjoying the city. It felt great to roll down the window, and quietly and cleanly roll along with them, while smelly noisy gasoline cars really didn't seem to belong here.

Then out onto the civic streets again - where I wanted to try out charging. The test car only came with one charger - I suspect that any Th!nk owner would have a number. The stock one looks suitable for a garage and has a control unit that allows for stowing the cords around it, plus some controls and indicator lights. It looks as tho' it could either mount on a wall or lay on the floor.

After some early showers the weather had fined up, and the charging set up was quick and painless to set up. If you were going to be parked for some time, then an all weather charger would probably be needed. Other cars seemed to just have a plain cord that ran straight from the charging bollard to the cars socket.

The highway speed was something I did not get to try out, but Amelie tells me its good for highway speeds without any trouble.

The range question was asked. The current model had a sodium based battery, but newer cars are coming out with a Lithium-Ion battery chemistry and a claimed 160km range. These cars are just becoming available and are priced at 244,000KR, around $48,000 Australian dollars. This is the extra cost of the longer range batteries which come fully paid up - not a subscription or lease model of purchase.

However in Norway you have set against that purchase cost, a huge range of incentives thrown in by the local authorities - who despite being an oil producing nation are keen to see their cities clear of pollution.

As the driver of a Th!nk City EV in Oslo you get:
  • free parking in city and other parks
  • free charging at public charge points
  • reduced and free taxes, registration and charges
  • free travel on the ferries
  • toll roads, bridges and so on are free
  • use of bus, taxi and transit lanes
And of course you never have to pay for petrol ever again! Plus you're saving the planet and making the air easier to breathe.

As their logo has it "Green means go!".

I want one - maybe two!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Giant iPhone

The iPad - Apples new giant iPhone - doesn't display Spammy flash websites, and that is a problem, how?

The sheer unadulterated drivel being spruiked about the iPad is unbelievable.

Can I just say - you idiots out there ranting and raving that the iPhone doesn't have flash - here's a word for you guys - STFU.

You other guys calling it a computer - get off my lawn, leave this to the adults.

And others saying Jobs/Apple is saying its a netbook killer - where exactly? Who is saying that because its not in your article anywhere!

The iPad is a mobile device. Its a giant iPhone. It is all about what it does not have.

You hold it in one hand, and read e-books, the web, and your email. Its not a computer. Never was intended to be a computer.

Its just some new gadget that Apple made, and like their other stuff its designed to be simple, easy to use, and to limit its scope so that it performs very well to its price point. End of story. Its not a cancer cure, or a faster-than-light ship.

It comes with cut down versions of Apples office apps, keynote and so on so you can render a powerpoint or an excel file, but you'd be completely insane to try to edit one on the device.

The iPhone doesn't have flash. Ergo, the iPad doesn't have flash.

It was never going to have flash. If you like some other gadget, go and freaking well buy that instead!

Oh wait - that's right no other mobile device actually does flash!

The HP Slate you say? It's not here is it, and when it comes - with its 5 hour battery life, half that of the iPad, it will be dead on arrival. Play flash on that guy and you'll be lucky to get 2 hours out of it. If HP sell one Slate for every 10 iPads I'll be amazed.

Niche devices like Nokias lovely N900 (disclaimer - I work for Nokia) they have loads of power, and can render flash sites in the installed browser. But most of those, like the N900 are not available in all places, and are expensive. The N900 is a phone for geeks, and I'm talking more than being a power user: you need to be a linux geek to use this awesome thing to its full potential.

Android phones fall into the same category as well - many can theoretically render flash, but like the N900 doing so makes battery life pathetically short, and the phones become unresponsive and brittle as glass. Plus these devices have a long long way to go before they're a contender against the iPhone for market share.

So what is it about Flash?

Flash is a nightmare to implement on mobile devices - that is the core business reason why Apple didn't put it on their mobile devices, pure and simple. In webkit every flash item on a page becomes its own top level window, and consumes massive resources. Dropping Flash, and some other "too hard basket" items is why Apple engineers were able to deliver an iPhone that kicked the ass of every other phone vendor.

I work for Nokia, who make great products. They have an incredible coverage of the features required by demanding buyers, for example road-warriors with their voice-dialling and other advanced stuff.

The iPhone came out and had none of this stuff, and yet it went totally viral. Everyone wanted one. Why? Because it was simple and easy to use. The people that needed those advanced features - the tiny fraction of them, went and got those phones - Blackberrys, our high-end Nokias. The rest - basically everyone, since those power-users were a tiny percentage, got iPhones because the smooth easy to use UI made them feel empowered, instead of intimidated like the UI's on the high end business phones.

All those other vendors are scrambling to play catch up right now, and the reason is that stuff that was too hard, that made the device difficult to use, performed badly or was just plain too costly in terms of both development and bill-of-materials to put on the device - guess what - Apple didn't put it on there.

And what's more do people really actually want or need flash? Yes, I hear a lot of journo's and whinging slashdot types harping on about it, but who wants it on a device? I would love to hear what it is that you actually want to use it for.

If I had an iPad and it did have flash, then I would have to go and install a flash blocker. If I ever do buy one, guess what - I don't have to bother. But if it did, I would be wanting more than a blocker - I would be wanting someway to remove all support for flash from the device because its insecure, changes formats & versions every season, and most of all because it sucks the life out of the device.

You can't watch video's on iPhone because "75% of videos are flash"...? Well right on the home screen of the iPhone there's a YouTube icon and I have played a ton of videos using that - guess what it works just fine. People are working around flash, because of all its problems and that 75% or whatever it really is will be trending to zero very fast.

And another thing. The so called "hype" about the iPad.

You guys complaining about flash, you are the same whining tech journo's who were second guessing every last detail of the iPad even before it had a name, and cranking out articles speculating about what its feature list might be; then a week or two later complaining about the "hype of the ipad".

Do you know who hyped the iPad? It was you guys! Apple didn't do anything more than it had ever done - wheel out Steve Jobs and make a couple of press releases and videos. There were no superbowl adverts, no blimps or marching bands, Apple did nothing that qualified as hype in my book.

Hyping the iPad - it was done by the tech press - Apple didn't have to lift a finger!

By the way - I hope you like my bargain basement graphic of the iPad. Its scrawled on a napkin in my hotel room as I travel for work. Home grown right here.

Unlike the idiotic tech press who recycle Apple's own images just as they moan and whinge about Apple. They bitch and complain at the same time as they live and breathe for every next product that Apple makes.

The iPad - its just another crappy Apple device that doesn't do very much at all, but does it so well that everyone will buy it and meanwhile everyone else thinks they have to implement flash as a way to compete.

Here's my tip to you - forget flash if you want to stand any chance against the Apple line up of mobile devices.

Friday, April 16, 2010

East Anglia Scientists Exonerated by Inquiry

By ilkerender - flickr -
The inquiry led by Lord Oxburgh found that there was no evidence of scientific malfeasance in the actions of the East Anglia Climate Research Center (CRU). Professor David Hand, another member of the inquiry, said that the CRU scientists were to be commended for high-lighting the degrees of uncertainty in their results.

This result was after an extensive inquiry covering 20 years of CRU's work, done by an independent panel - in fact Lord Oxburgh is a former head of Shell. If there had actually been a climate-gate, a smoking gun, it would have been found - but none was.

Oxburgh commented that the scientists were ill-prepared for the limelight they were placed under, and that if anything they were naive in their handling of the exposure. The panel also commented that while newer statistical methods could have been used its doubtful this would have changed the results.

Claims that they manipulated data or tried to hide facts have been destroyed. Those claims - generated by a disgraceful smear campaign unfolding from some stolen emails - provided by persons unknown - have done their damage to the climate change effort that had been galvanized throughout the world by the IPCC report. Now that the claims made by those in possession of the emails have been shown to be false, its sadly the case that the speeding comet of climate change still heads toward our earth and the advice of scientists on how to fix the problem has been foiled by the dirty tricks brigade.

We already know - as discussed in previous articles on this blog - that the oil companies and others are quite capable of mounting bogus conferences and using other tricks from the arsenal of fake science employed by the tobacco companies while they fought against the scientific evidence that smoking kills. Who was behind those stolen emails? We'll likely never know, but we do know who benefits don't we.

Of course the sensationalist headlines timed perfectly for the world climate summit in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 will not be retracted.

All this is part of a general retrograde anti-scientific trend amongst not just our politicians, but society at large with the result that television shock-jocks, right wing fundamentalist preachers and peddlers of magic crystals and horoscope readings are to be trusted more than science. This is at the core of our ghastly treatment of third world countries when it comes to vaccines and other urgent medical aid, and also to the role of genetically modified foods in curing world hunger - eloquently discussed in a recent talk by Michael Specter.

I will name this science denial. We have a word for it: ignorance. Wilful ignorance. Its the ignorance of the idiocracy, and its the ignorance of pseudo-science and fundamentalist religions, that spout tripe such as new earth creationism.

Science has error-bars - well understood measures of how significant scientific evidence is, and how much confidence we can have in it. This is the "uncertainty" referred to by the inquiry panel, and highlighted by CRU in its report to the IPCC. When the scientists of CRU and then of the IPCC interpreted the data for their reports it is the sum total of centuries of experience in the scientific research that they relied apon. So called "uncertainty" is just grist to the scientific mill - once the error terms are quantified, scientific judgements can be made with great confidence.

Like the issue of the Himalayan glaciers non-scientists grasp hold of a few words and figures and due to lack of scientific expertise leap to conclusions that they are ill-qualified to make.

Its like a doctor telling a 45 year old man that he has 3 years to live, and instead it is discovered a mistake has been made and he has 6 years to live instead. Listen to the advice our doctors and professors are giving us - they are the only hope we have. The message is that the Himalayan glaciers are under imminent threat - we had better make good use of the extra time that any incorrect figures may have given us. If we say "you were wrong" to the scientists and believe that allows us to sit on our hands we are completely missing the point of their warnings.

Climate change remains as dire as it always was - we cannot keep doing what we have been doing and expect the world we leave for future generations to look like the one we inherited.

But even more importantly we cannot live in a world where progress on medicines, health, food, transport and in fact the quality of life of all, is held back by ignorance.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Prius Juggernaut

Final update:

The Toyota Prius stuck pedal is a hoax - its official now with multiple news sites reporting it:
...and many more.

Interestingly enough Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple has also owned up to his freaky stunt, saying that he too had been hoaxing, after being reported as having said his Prius had a stuck-accelerator.

Seems that TV reporters were all too keen to hear any story about Toyotas back then, and if you wanted to get on TV that was how to do it.

Further udpate:

This excellent video from - a US car review website - has a great demonstration of the all-weather car mat problem, and a very sane discussion of unintended acceleration.

If you really are interested in stopping so-called unintended acceleration then following the advice given in this video to put your car in neutral is the way to go.

For those that remain convinced that electronic gremlins in the fly-by-wire systems on cars is the cause, and that we should all go back to mechanical throttles because they were oh-so reliable I still await any evidence of this. The fact is that electronic throttles which cut out the engine when the brake is fully depressed, as the Prius does, are much safer than any mechanical linkage.

Update: a recent report of a collision with a wall after 56 year-old driver in New York state experiencing "unintended acceleration" in her Prius has been determined by the NHTSA to be a case of driver error. The NHTSA said
Information retrieved from the vehicle's onboard computer systems indicated there was no application of the brakes and the throttle was fully open.
What irritates me no end is that the original "breaking news" reports were stated in a way that conflated drive-by-wire with unintended acceleration. Now that the NHTSA have ruled it was driver error - the owner simply panicked and jumped on the wrong pedal - do you think there will be a breaking news retraction?

Meanwhile Prius has been rated the "Most Dependable Car" in a recent survey. But such stories don't compare for headline grabbing shock-horror value stories about out of control drive-by-wire that technophobes lap up with glee, even when they're proven to be completely bogus.

I'm on my third Prius. When an electric car becomes available here in Australia I'll buy that, but until then Prius is the lowest emissions option, with far better carbon footprint than any car in its class.

It's spacious - easily carrying 4-5 adults and baggage, has plenty of power, and an excellent standard of finish, and accessories.

When I got my first one - they were rare as hens teeth. I even joined a Prius car club. Seeing one on the road was cause for excitement. People at work marvelled at the LCD display, and the electronics under the hood.

Then over to the USA and my second Prius - they were a lot more popular there, especially so in California.

The image left is of that Prius, an 07 iTech with all the bells and whistles, sitting rather cheekily in the car park of the Tesla HQ in Silicon Valley.

Now in 2010 Prius is everywhere, even in backwater Brisbane, Australia. In my small work car park alone, there are 3-4; Prius taxis queue up behind each other in city cab ranks; and Prius drivers sail past each other on the roads without the slightest frisson of excitement or recognition.

It seems there is no stopping the juggernaut of Toyota's marvel car, as they struggle to keep up with demand, and win award after award with it.

Of course now that Prius is popular, that means a lot more people are driving them.

And guess what - that means idiots are also driving them.

Was just checking the news websites via Google news, and a number of mostly conservative news sites, like Fox news, are reporting a piece about the Police in San Diego helping a Prius driver with a stuck accelerator slow his vehicle. The piece was originated by the San Diego Tribune and syndicated by AP.

The article also comments that a Police officer was killed recently in a Toyota stuck accelerator incident, and that Toyota are involved in a recall at present.

These sorts of reports are often phrased in a way that to the casual reader sounds like all Toyota vehicles are death traps waiting to close around their next victim. The front page of the Economist has carried a recent story about Toyota slips up. Certainly seems like the world has got it in for Toyota.

Anyway - that "sudden acceleration".

Some additional facts are that the Police officer in that case was off duty, driving with his family; and the vehicle was a Toyota Lexus 4WD. The car also contained the driver's brother-in-law who phoned 911 during the incident.

The vehicle was a loaner car, while the driver's regular vehicle was being repaired. The fact that the vehicle was a loaner makes it more likely that the driver was unfamiliar with the engine on/off switch. There is no evidence that he attempted to put the car in neutral.

There was a recall last year for floor mats entrapping the accelerator pedal in some Toyotas - as far as I can tell this is what is being blamed for this 4 person fatal crash, in the preliminary reports.

The recall also involved packaging changes to instruct drivers in the proper installation of the all-weather floor mats which could slide forward if not fitted properly.

There is a Toyota current recall, but its only for some newer models, and relates to the braking of the car at very low speeds. Nothing to do with the accelerator.

There has to date been no investigation outcomes supporting any problems with the electronic throttle on Toyota vehicles as far as I know. However much of the hype out there is drumming up the notion that electronic throttles are to blame, and Prius electronics in general are faulty.

However Toyota have to manage possibilities, and also try to avoid problems that could make it easier for drivers to make errors. It has to manage perceptions, and if people experience things that they don't expect, and which could cause them to panic.

This is one of the reasons why our USA Prius had the EV switch removed - it was yet another thing that might "freak out" US drivers.


I have been interested to discover what is behind all this publicity of stuck accelerator and failing brakes.

Any Police officer will tell you they are always suspicious of any reports made by drivers of vehicles, especially drivers who have been involved in collisions, or high-speed incidents. There can be some quite amazing behaviour and reports from drivers when they are on the face of it at fault in an collision; or when they suddenly notice that there is a "speed trap" and that they might have been detected by it.

I'm not saying at all that there are no valid reports - I'm just saying that reported incidents need to be carefully corroborated, using an evidence based approach.

In particular when serious incidents have occurred the cars are very very meticulously examined for mechanical and electronic/electrical faults by Police and Transport Authorities to determine if anything about the vehicle contributed to the collision. Where there is any corroboration at all from those examinations, or from examination of the scene and other eye-witnesses, then these reports need to be taken very seriously indeed.

A couple of other salient facts - there are a large number of lawsuits open at present for "Sudden Acceleration" - sites like offer to find you good lawyers for your Sudden Acceleration Syndrome claim. This "Sudden Acceleration" syndrome has been around for 20 years now, and has become a nice little earner for lawyers.

If enough hype can be gathered about a particular vehicle, then there's plenty of instant whiplash victims donning their foam collars and ringing the local ambulance chasers to join the class action. For some this is better than working for a living apparently.

This wikipedia article is very interesting, and has a great history of the "sudden acceleration phenomena".

Basically after years of pursuing the Audi 5000 there was never any evidence for the claims of unintended acceleration - the class action lawsuit that was launched by several people reporting "Sudden Acceleration" was eventually lost after an expert who they called was involved with rigging an Audi to exhibit the fault for a television program.

The reports have been determined to be due to driver error such as hitting the accelerator pedal believing it to be the brake, or the pedal becoming stuck against some loose object in the footwell.

Note that in the case of the Audi there were recalls - to fit an accelerator pedal that was further away from the brake pedal. Its common apparently for sports cars to have the two close together for high-performance driving, but here the car was dumbed down for the american driver.

This article has a skeptical view of the Prius stuck accelerator reports.

My own view is that the vast number of these complaints are actually caused by cruise control. The reports in these incidents involve cruise control.

In this account:

I felt the vehicle [2008 Lexus ES 350] increasing in speed to about 90 mph, without depressing the accelerator. I had been on cruise control at about 73 mph... [A] passenger screamed at me to slow down. I was unable to do so, even after stepping forcefully on the brakes.

If the vehicle has been on a steady decline or level surface and encounters an incline, neighbouring vehicles not using cruise control will tend to slow down. However in a vehicle with the cruise control on, it will increase engine revs and in automatic cars drop to a lower gear.

A sudden call for extra power by the cruise control in this situation causes the motor to rev up quite dramatically. This should all be expected because you have asked the vehicle to maintain a high steady speed, and now on the incline much more power is required to acheive that. At the same time other vehicles in neighbouring lanes appear much slower by comparison.

If a driver has been at the wheel for a long time, in a steady stream of traffic, using cruise control, their alertness and attention to the road may wander. This is especially so if there are other distractions in the car. Suddenly the engine revs up, other vehicles out the window are going relatively slower - and a 10 km difference in speed versus the traffic will look like you are roaring along.

Now the driver who has had their feet away from the controls suddenly panics and tries to slow the vehicle - in this case it can be easy to misapply the controls, jamming the foot onto the accelerator, or getting both the brake and the accelerator.

I suspect a large number more of these reports are due to obstructions in the footwell of the car - like the improperly fitted floor mats in the Toyota cars. The remainder I would put down to driver error - fatigue, distraction and all the rest.

They go and jam their foot on the wrong pedal.

Whether its the cruise control thing, or footwell obstructions, putting the car in neutral and applying the brake always works.

There are I would say hundreds, thousands of drivers out there who have experienced problems from cruise control or footwell obstruction - they've put the vehicle in neutral and applied the brakes and all has been OK. However the ones who fail to control the vehicle - are they going to ever say there was something that they could have done? Nope, the damages - especially the more severe they are - are the fault of the vehicle manufacturer, the evil corporation.

The trouble with the litigious society is that it results in dumbing down of everything and poorer results for the rest of us that are able to drive and generally behave responsibly.

My view is that it is extremely unlikely that there are any valid actual incidents of something going wrong with the electronic throttle on any vehicles. You should start worrying about precautions for electronic throttles about the same time as you do for meteors falling on your head. The chance that that is true is far outweighed by the safety advantages of the electronic throttle, which for example automatically cuts out acceleration when you apply the brake (as mentioned in the allaboutprius article).

Here's yet another story about a woman who reported her Lexus going out of control. Her complaints were rejected by Toyota and also by the NHTSA - now here she is in a congressional hearing saying that the NHTSA aren't doing their job properly. The comments make for interesting reading.

I'm sure she experienced something horrible and frightening. However we need to get over the fact that not everything has to be someone else's fault.

Some more developments on the case of the "runaway Prius":

Turns out that
  • Toyota are stating that what he reports - that brakes were applied but the car kept accelerating - is not possible, and this was confirmed by tests both by Toyota and the NHTSA, while an observer from the congressional hearing was in attendance
  • The CHP - both the officer following the vehicle and the 911 operator - told him to put it in neutral over the course of the 27 minutes incident - he did not
  • Sikes, the driver of the Prius in the reported "sudden acceleration" case is a bankrupt, has a large debt, and has retained a lawyer
Commentators on blogs are comparing the thing to the "Balloon Boy" incident - where the news gets hold of something happening in "real time", but it turns out to be all faked.

Here is a guy who finds his car accelerating out of control, so he calls 911?? You're driving an out of control vehicle so you get on the phone?

But you don't try to put the vehicle in neutral, or press the engine off switch? You don't even have to move your hand from the wheel to put the car in neutral on the Prius - the stalk is right there on the dash.

I'm afraid my bullsh*t detector just tripped up into the red zone....

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lilypond - music notation hard core

GarageBand for MacOSX comes with some great free music lessons.

I've been working my way through the piano ones, and they're excellent for keeping up the focus and motivation by giving some quick results, and in the "Play" section rewarding you with an accompaniment for your efforts that makes even an average performance sound pretty good.

Trouble is, when you have a minute or two with the keyboard and just want to practice some of what you've learned going back to GarageBand and firing up the lesson, scrolling to the part you're having trouble with is quite a pain.
It would be really handy to have some way to print out the score - but there isn't.

Well there is a tool that makes it pretty easy to code up musical scores, especially ones that have lots of repititive sections like the GarageBand lessons.

Its called Lilypond, and although it requires some command-line fu, to get it to do your bidding the results are nothing short of spectacular.

The first step is to go to the Lilypond site and download the version for your computer.

When you first run Lilypond it will show a sample file with a short scale. The section with "Welcome to Lilypond" is bracketed with %{ and }, so its treated as a comment - the rest of the sample file is lilypond music notation!

Choose select all, and delete the contents of the sample file, and replace it with your own notation.

Get started quickly by picking one of their templates that is close to the result you want, and modifying it rather than starting with a blank slate.

The notation may look a bit daunting at first, but its actually pretty simple and you can learn just enough to achieve your goals by following the excellent documentation.

I laid out my notation with the treble staff first, and then the bass - all with one measure to a line. That allowed me to quickly find the measure I had made a mistake on (since lilypond conveniently numbers your measures).

Once you have your text file prepared, you run the "Typeset file" command from the "Compile" menu and the PDF of your music appears.

Here's a screenshot of the final result.

To start working really effectively with Lilypond, you should understand that at its heart its a simple command line tool, designed for one job - taking Lilypond files, called something like "", processing them, and producing musical score as a result.

Here's how to run Lilypond from the command line, assuming its installed in MacOSX's /Applications folder:
/Applications/ -o "~/Documents" "~/"
The ~/Documents is the folder where the resulting files will be dropped.

Given that Lilypond is really a command line application the GUI program that you get on MacOSX or Windows is kind of tacked on and really isn't needed - in fact the editor that comes with Lilypond is really meant to be a "get you past first base" kind of thing.

I personally use the VIM editor, which is hard core - not for everyone. If you're a fan of vim however, you can find a set of indentation and colouration files inside the application:

Copy those into your .vim directory to get nicely indented and syntax highlighted editing inside vim.

To work with lilypond from the command line, on MacOSX download a handy script, and run it from the terminal. The script has the above lilypond invocation inside, and will wait for you to pass the path of your file to it, and then present you with the result. You then get the option to either run lilypond again on your file (presumably after you've made some edits) or to quit.

Good luck with your next great score!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Hot, Flat and Upgefscked

I hope the campaign is successful not just in shaming the coalition into action, but also in waking up our elected representatives; currently making a hash of their only marginally better policy on climate change.

The opposition keep name-calling, hoping that their slinging of the dread word "tax" will stick to Rudd's cap-and-trade policy.

The irony is that a tax would be the best policy of the lot - David Victor, Stanford University Professor and expert on international coal markets:

I think we have vastly oversold the role of the market in the solution to this problem...

As Dr Victor grudgingly admits, ETS schemes are failing and only a tax would be a strong and clear signal - fixed and away from the vagaries of the market, so that Australian clean technology entrepreneurs, as well as all other green innovations and measures are actually economically viable.

Why would you catch a clean green bus, when your car is cheap to run on petrol? Why would you pay much more for an electric vehicle, when your gas guzzler is so cheap to buy and register by comparison?

This is 2010 - the year of the electric car, but we won't see any of them in numbers Australia because our governments are completely failing to create policies to make it attractive to manufacturers to ship them here. In the UK tax on new cars is figured based on their emissions ratings and thus EV's are very attractive there - zero emissions vehicles finally competing on a level playing field. In the USA tax credits are available for zero emissions vehicles - for example resulting in a $7500 saving on the Chevy Volt.

Why are electric vehicle entrepreneurs in Australia struggling to get off the ground?

Because here we just dig stuff out of the ground and ship it over seas. That's what we do, that's our plan for the future.

The Smart State? The lucky country? Nope, we're the Idiocracy. If it wasn't bad enough that we have Senator Fielding, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Attorney-General Michael Atkinson. Now we have Abbot and his ludicrous non-policy.

The problem for Australia with regards to climate change is that we've completely failed to realize the urgency, and the Abbott's of this nation are just lowering the average climate intelligence quotient right across Australia.

The heatwave conditions in Feb 2009 which filled the morgue in Victoria and spread wildfires were the pre-saging of more to come, according to the Australian Bureau of Meterology, thanks to climate change.

But more heatwaves when they come will not be our biggest problem here in Australia.

I've just read (on pg 80 of) Thomas L Friedman's "Hot, Flat & Crowded" (2009 edition) that the Sigma Xi group, commissioned by the UN to report on climate change, said in their February 2007 document "Confronting Climate Change" that the relatively small increase of 0.8 degrees C since 1750 has been "accompanied by significant increases in the incidence of floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires".

But more fires and droughts when they come will not be our biggest problem here in Australia either.

Our bigger problem is that when the effects of climate change hit the countries most vulnerable to its effects, when their crops fail and disease spreads and generally things are looking like the four horsemen of the apocalypse have moved in for good: where do you think those refugees are going to go?

Here is where they'll go: the lucky country. While we battle bushfires, and raging ignorance, and compete to see how far we can stick our heads in the sand, desperate refugees will be arriving here in force. At the same time, our armed forces will be called on for international relief efforts, much as they were for the tsunami disaster in Banda Aceh in 2004.

While we turn up our air-conditioners, and argue that climate change is bogus because of some emails from East Anglia, the evidence of climate change will be arriving on our doorstep in ever-increasing numbers.

Oh, and Tony, good luck reanimating some the policies of our old dark lords with a return to "turn back the boats" policies - these people will have no country to go back to.

Apart from refugees, the other problem dwarfing fires, drought and heat that climate change will bring for Australia is that if we keep being as backward as we are regarding clean technologies is that soon no-one will want the stuff we're digging out of the ground.

China is investing massively in clean technologies, and indeed some of our top talent in solar technologies have gone there - others to the USA - due to the clear state commitment to controlling climate change with high-tech solutions, especially compared to the dismal picture here.

When these large Chinese plants come on line in the next 5 to 10 years their own local reserves of coal will be more than adequate to meet the needs of their dwindling coal plants.

By then it will be too late for Australia to turn around and beg those scientists to come back and start trying to foster a clean tech industry - we'll be sitting on a pile of worthless black dirt that no-one wants, and lagging so far behind the technology race that we don't have a hope of catching up.

Swamped with refugees and becoming a backward third-world country. That's not what I want for my Australia.

Come on K Rudd - show Abbot what a real forward thinking climate policy looks like, and make us the lucky country once again.