Colin's Journal

Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.

November 29th, 2002

Bowling for Columbine

I’ve just returned from seeing Bowling For Columbine, the latest film by Michael Moore. I’ve not seen any of Michael’s other films, only the TV Nation series that he did a while ago. The film style is very much his own, although being longer than TV Nation he gets into it in a more serious way.

There’s a lot in this film, and it’s certainly not just about guns. The comparison between Canada and the US regarding prevalence of guns is an interesting point (especially while I’m living here!), but some of the numbers presented are misleading.

For example the film takes the number of fire arms in Canada (approximately 9 million – estimates and sources can be found here), and determines that with a population of around 10 million house holds (population of 30 million) that 9/10 house holds have guns. The maths of course is bogus, while there are around 9 million fire arms they are concentrated together, with gun owners likely to own more than one gun. According to this paper based on the International Crime (Victim) Survey from 1996, around 22% of house holds in Canada has one or more fire arms. The point still stands however that with US gun owning house holds coming in at 48% (see the same paper) it’s not just a straight matter of gun ownership that can explain the nearly 10 times difference in gun related deaths (figures from the movie).

The thesis put forward by the film is that Americans are perpetually afraid – they are constantly being told about dangers in their society, and as a result are more likely to see gun ownership as a part of defence. This added to the sheer number of guns is what causes the number of gun related deaths. It’s an interesting idea, certainly supported by the type of news coverage that I’ve seen in the US, but I’m not sure how well it would hold up to proper analysis. While the number of gun owners in Canada that deem their ownership of guns being for defence is low, this is not true of Austria.

November 29th, 2002

Quick round-up on software

A quick round-up on some recent software releases: Mozilla has released version 1.2. Mozilla is my favourtite web browser when I’m stuck on something other than Linux (where I use galeon). There’s also a new version of the stable linux kernel 2.4.20, although I’ll wait a few days for some feedback to come in before I upgrade myself.

On the subject of software that hasn’t been released: I’ve now handle text encodings other than ASCII in my weblog system. This means that I can quote prices in pounds properly (£ – see?)! I hadn’t spent any time worry about text encoding until I found that it didn’t work, but now I think I’ve got it nailed down pretty well. Internally everything uses unicode, all weblog posts are stored in XML in UTF-8, and you can specify what character encoding the HTML templates and resulting files should use. The bit that seems like a bit of a hack to me is that I can’t find out dynamically what encoding the GUI is using (written in wxPython) – so it’s currently hard coded.

The feature that I’d like to work on next will be a simple web based entry editor so that I can make postings while on the move – it should be simple enough to implement so it shouldn’t take long. I definitely want to have it finished for Christmas, otherwise it’ll be very quiet around here!

November 28th, 2002

Budget deficits

The big headline in the UK today was that the government has admitted that the current spending plans will result in a budget deficit of GBP20 billion. The BBC news didn’t mention anywhere what this was as a proportion of GDP, which is useful when comparing with the state of our continental neighbours. It seems to provide this information here but looking at the graph shown you would expect the deficit to be around 0.5%. If you read the description of the graph though you will see that this is excluding “borrowing for investment”. Now it’s always difficult to determine what can be classified as investment, versus on-going expenses, so this number should be viewed with suspicion from the start.

In addition it’s also not a useful number in the long run – you might have borrowed money for investment, but at the end of the day you still have to pay it back regardless of how it was accounted for on a year by year basis. I agree with the government approach of having a balanced budget only over the sum of an economic cycle (although that’s a very hard thing to achieve – it means you must make some sort of prediction as to the likely length of future growth periods or recessions!), but excluding borrowing for investment seems like a misleading thing to do.

I did manage to work out what the deficit is as a percentage of GDP – by looking at the latest figures from the latest figures from National Statistics. Here you can find that the GDP for 2001 was 988 billion (plus change), which leaves the deficit at around 2%.

November 25th, 2002

Ransom model for software development

It appears that the whole of idea of ransomware is starting to be formalised. The concept is that developers build software, do binary only releases and, once it has brought in a certain amount of money, they will release the source code as open source.

It has most famously been used for blender, a 3D rendering program, for which EUR100,000 was raised to free the source code. There is at least one other I know of in the form of pepper, a promising text editor that is no longer being developed.

I like the idea because it allows software developers to build quality software that is released into the community, and get paid. It also means that there is a direct way for consumers of software to purchase open source software in a way that directly benefits the authors, and helps the community as well. I’m not sure how well the idea scales however. If this model continues then we will should expect to see a few consequences fall out from it:

  1. There will be some developers that work hard at a project, but at the end the ransom is not met. It’s not clear how to deal with this – the ransom website mentioned above talks about a “time bomb” to address this, but I doubt this will work (why not just wait for it to be released anyway rather than paying for it?)
  2. There will inevitably be some fraud and mis-understandings. It’s going to take a while for the model to shake out and have solid contracts behined it.
  3. PayPal is going to be making even more money than they do now!

November 22nd, 2002

Adding descriptions to RSS Feeds

I’ve added descriptions to my RSS Feeds. They are created by taking the first 200 characters of the first paragraph of any post, and then stripping out any HTML present. It’s not a completely elegant solution, but the RR0.91 spec is fairly limited in what can be included in an RSS feed, so until I move to a more recent format it’ll have to do.

Unfortuantly as a side effect of this it may appear (if your aggregator is simplisitc like that used by livejournal) as if I’ve updated all my posts at once…

November 21st, 2002

The economics of computing power

There’s been a running theme through Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal regarding the tech boom, and the question of the economic growth due to advancements in technology. An aspect of this question is put nicely in this short post regarding the investment in computers and peripherals.

The question being asked is how can there have been an excess in capital spending growth on computers and surrounding technologies, if even today, we are seeing steep growths in “real” expenditure. The problem with this questions is of course in the definition of “real” expenditure. The real expenditure is calculated based on the amount that would have had to have been spent in the baseline year (in this case 1996) to purchase the same thing. The problem with this measure is that the extra computing power purchased today versus 1996 is not really used for anything. The fact that it’s present might add slight benefits to the user experience, but it’s economic impact is actually very low. Whether you are using your 2002 computer or your 1996 computer it will take the same length of time to write that memo or send that email.

The point raised is, however, correct: there isn’t a huge overhang in capital spending on computers. There is some overhang of course, mostly in telecoms, but also present elsewhere, it’s just not that large. One reason for the size of the gap being small is simply that the life cycle of a computer hasn’t really changed much. After 3-4 years you need a new one. It’s not simply a matter of the latest software requiring it, nor the peripherals not being compatible with it, but that it simply wears out. Hard drives start failing, keyboards need replacing, even mice can only do so many miles. Laptops are a particular problem of course – they travel around the world and have more moving parts. The result is that after a while it costs more to keep an old computer going than it does to replace it. When the replacement is made it’s with a machine of a comparable initial cost to the first one but it will, on an economists scale, be considerably better. In practise their was no option to choose a machine of the same spec as the original for a lower price, and so the newer machine will be a better specification regardless of whether or not this was a purchasing criteria.

The other major reason why so much of what was invested in the tech boom has not created a large overhang is nothing to do with hardware, but is instead about software. For any given system or project the hardware costs are always lower than the software costs, and yet in an asset sale the hardware retains it’s value far better than software does. Most software is developed or tailored for a particular situation, and so it has no value outside of that situation. During the tech boom lots of software was developed that is now simply irrelevant, has no value, and so can not contribute to an investment overhang. Unlike the hardware it’s not possible for someone else to come along and pick it up and use it for a new venture – in fact it would cost more to do so than to start from scratch.

In summary: most of the capital expenditure made through the tech boom has to be written off. The hardware that can be sold off does create a modest overhang (except in telecoms where the hardware has a very long shelf life), particularly for servers and other data centre infrastructure, but nothing in comparison to the total expenditures made during the boom.

November 21st, 2002

Messing around with sound

I’ve been messing around with sound – trying to record the output from a music player into an mp3 file. I’ve managed to do it, but it took some messing around. I can make the player use esd to play the sound, and then use esdmon to get the sound stream. The stream however is not handled by lame, so I have pipe it through sox first to convert it. The reason it took so long to figure out however was that esdmon would fail if the DISPLAY variable was set – yuck.

In better news I now have a link assistant in my weblog program for quickly generating links to sites. Nothing special, but it should be a time saver!

November 20th, 2002

Improvements to weblog system

I’ve implemented a new TAL Engine for my weblog system. This version is a lot smaller than the last one, and implements behaviour closer to the specification. It also allows me to write TAL markup in the postings themselves – which is pretty nifty. This should allow me to support things like images in my postings in an easier to maintain fashion, and hopefully also improve the RSS feed to also include content of postings.

I need to test it against the old version before I can start using it for my personal weblog, but it works in development!

November 17th, 2002

Lots of Snow

Very snowy deck

Winter is here – we have 15cm of snow on the ground at it’s still going! It started yesterday around 4pm, and from the sight outside it doesn’t look like it stopped at all. The transformation is incredible and magical. I love fresh snow, and although I know it’s going to be cold and wet when we go out later, it’s still a wonderful sight to behold.

The picture is the view out of the bedroom door onto the deck this morning (well around 11am!) The snow is still coming down as I type this, and it’s not looking like it will ease up at all – the sky is a very light grey.

In other news I now have a crude RSS feed. It only contains the titles of posts and links to them, but it should be usable in your favourite news/weblog aggregator.

November 16th, 2002

Perma-Links Added

I’ve added permanent link support to my weblog software. I now have little ‘Perma-Link’ entries after the title of each posting which points to the archive version of the post.

Copyright 2015 Colin Stewart

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