An ex-IMF official analyses the US Financial Meltdown

A friend referred me to this article by a former IMF official. You've heard me rant about this before and how to fix it. It's nice to see similar criticism from someone who could be said to know better than me. The comments by others, including a Southeast-Asian chap are as instructive in their own way as the article. Read it and weep.

Little Round Planet...

...in a big universe. This collage of images brought to my notice by my father-in-law reminded me again of the beauty of our little home. Enjoy.

General Fusion -- from Burnaby, on NPR

I used to work at the same company as a bunch of the people at General Fusion and I was delighted to hear about these folks on NPR's All Things Considered last week.


"tau" or "pi"

I looked at this page, advocating τ, the ratio between circumference of a circle and its radius as the more important constant than π, the ratio between circumference and diameter.

Given how often 2π shows up in formulae: capacitive and inductive reactance, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (and any other equation that uses the Reduced Planck Constant) for starters, but anyone who knows their math and physics will be able to rattle off a few more.

But I wondered if the circle would kill the idea. Surprisingly it didn't! Area of a circle as 1/2τr^2 makes a lot of sense, especially in light of the Quantity - Symbol - Expression table. In fact, that table was missing an important entry! "Kinetic Energy", there should have read "Kinetic Energy - Linear Motion", to be followed by a line for "Kinetic Energy - Angular Motion". The formula? 1/2Iω^2 -- where "I" is the "moment of inertia" (angular mass) of a spinning object and "ω" is "angular velocity".

This idea, this fight looks a bit like tilting at windmills but interesting. I wonder if it's something that will ever get any traction?

I'd like the world to be a place where enough of the life-and-death issues are settled that most people who might possibly be interested in the question would have the leisure to consider it...

Cold Fusion test today in Bologna

Is it a scam? (as many responders to this slashdot post say it is) I fear so, I hope not.

Other articles (like this one, this one, this one -- from serious sources; this one, this one from a less credible one) at least explore the possibility of success.

If successful, the next question is, what happens when oil's most important economic use is as raw material for plastic?

And how poignant the engineer's dilemma: "we see it working again and again, but if only we could come up with some really good science to explain it!"

And then the most important use for polywell generators may be as a way of producing enough neutrons (running D-T) to render fission-waste products safe in decades instead of tens of millenia.

When I see more results, I'll add something here.


Supporting Ron Paul feels cool, is stupid

(cross-post from this slashdot article)

Disclaimer: I am a Canadian, so I do not have a dog in this race; except we are your nearest neighbours (nearer than México in two minor ways only: longer border, no local outcries for a fence) so if you systematically self-destruct, it'll be bad for us, too.

Support for Ron Paul by the young and sometimes geeky has intrigued me for some time. Is it a result of reading Ayn Rand? Is it because his ideas seem so much more sensible than so many others? Is it because he does not appear beholden to any lobbyists? Is it primarily because he wants to end drug Prohibition? Possibly all of the above.

But it's also confused me because a number of the things Ron Paul wants to do away with are things that help the young find their first footholds -- things like student loans (or even grants). When I read this headline, I thought for just a second that perhaps Dr. Paul wants to throw open the universities for all, call a full education a civil right that you get to take advantage of based on merit. But I dismissed that thought before I saw the rest of the post, and I was right to do so. My response: his analysis may have some truth in it but it's so simple as to be suspect, in my view. On balance, like much of what Ron Paul says, it's too simple to be right.

Whoever thinks Ron Paul is cool, whatever lobby groups he is not beholden to, make no mistake: the über-rich and powerful wish his ideas well because their adoption would entrench and deepen the growing class divisions in America and put an end to the American dream as anything but that: a wistful dream of what expectations used to be.

Something is rotten in the way the US is going these days. For instance, in my lifetime, before 2008, I had never heard a leading politician in the US say of their president from the opposing party that they wanted him to fail. Whether you agree with Mr. Obama or not, that attitude on the part of any member of your government is pernicious. I'll stop there because the list of things going wrong is so long (most of them decades in the making) as to make this too-long post ridiculously so.

But Ron Paul is not the answer to those problems: his ideas (and incidentally those of the Tea Party) are only going to help the rich get richer and inherit the meek (and the not so meek). Do yourselves a favour, folks, and elect leaders that remember what they learned in Kindergarten (without forgetting all the things they learned since) and value their neighbours over hard lines -- internal neighbours, of course! I wouldn't advocate that you would elect the people I, your Canadian neighbour, want you to elect. I'm just confident that if, overall, you voted in line with your interests (and that may take a lot of thinking to figure out who's going to serve those best) and do well, then you won't become neighbours that we have to fear from across that longest unarmed border in the world.

be good to each other, folks...ank


iPhone pros and cons

In some ways, I am one of the geekiest people a lot of my friends know. In other ways, not so much. Let me explain.

One of the geekiest: I have been a professional software developer for 25 years now (with no plans to join management any time soon) and I generally understand technology trends and can navigate my way around new stuff that arrives as and when etc. etc. On the other hand, I have been a devoted practitioner of contentment, shunning the bleeding edge to make my family's budget work reasonably well.

Not so much: I actively practice contentment. I know about the bleeding edge but I don't live there. I only got a cellphone six years ago, and it was only in the last year or so that I upgraded (I call it a downgrade in some ways) to a smart-phone. It's a phone for crying out loud, my third one, and there are features from my first phone that I still miss. I don't need the extra charges of a data plan. I don't need the extra distraction of all those apps and games. Weather happens, my wife and kids are great company and there are so many books to read (and yes, I still love the feel of paper in my hand) so although I enjoy my smart-phone (it's an android), I'm not really a zealot for one, or for the platform that I chose.

Every now and then, though, someone will ask me "android or iPhone?" and I don't quite know what to say. A lot of them aren't techies and don't know how much they ought to care (for my sake and those like me) about freedom. All they want is a smart-phone that will do what they want, beautifully, seamlessly and not exorbitantly (although they're probably all willing to pay more day-to-day than I am).

This week, though, I saw a pair of answers to this problem which I present to you. I wish everyone would choose anything but the iPhone because of this article from CodingHorror. I totally get why many to most people, especially the non-technical ones will choose the iPhone over other options because of this ZDNet article. I, too, have had to do parental tech support. And often enough, it's been cleanup tech support when some misfortune, small, large or unintentional (on the part of the perpetrator) has befallen their tech.

So I don't want to serve only at the pleasure of the King but my parents will probably never want to use an Android either.


Patents, Math, Software

Since the most important body of patent law in the world is that of the US, I begin this post by quoting this wikipedia article, where a judicial finding in the US pre-empts the patenting of Mathematics:

'[SCOTUS] ruled that a process claim directed to a numerical algorithm, as such, was not patentable because "the patent would wholly pre-empt the mathematical formula and in practical effect would be a patent on the algorithm itself."'

Here's a follow-on syllogism:
  • No mathematics is patentable
  • All software is mathematics
  • Therefore no software is patentable.
One of my regular addictions is groklaw. Some time ago, someone posted an article there, titled 1 + 1 (pat. pending) — Mathematics, Software and Free Speech. Today the same author posts a follow-up, A Simpler Explanation of Why Software is Mathematics, which I submit for your consideration, admittedly before I've read them all.

Intellectual freedom to the people: shorten copyrights, narrow applicability of patents, enable imagination and innovation without fear of lawyers breathing down your neck.

Two articles in a morning?

This time it's microbes that generate electricity while stabilizing radioactive spills. What a wonderful world.

Cool article of the morning: superconductors!

And I do mean cool. Slashdot today reports on an advance in superconductors. As usual there's more noise than signal, this time not only on the slashdot end but also in any of the sources that could be used to talk about the story. Charitably, the title used is clear but these articles could all be improved.

The best article so far is behind a paywall at IEEE but the abstract here tells you all you need to know without getting lost in the details. The sapphire strand is being used as a place to hang a real high-temperature semiconductor that uses Yttrium, Barium, Copper and Oxygen. The results keep a low temperature more easily and are superconducting at microwave frequencies and 77 K (around the boiling point of Nitrogen -- "high temperature" in superconductors is different than "high temperature in weather).


Canada asked to be called a copyright pirate!!?

Sent to my Member of Parliament this morning -- Canadians, especially those residing in ridings represented by Conservatives, consider sending something like this yourselves:

To: the Honourable Member of Parliament for Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, Minister of Heritage and Official Languages, Mr. James Moore
Regarding: Michael Geist's story on leaked cables

Hello again...

After this story, the only credible thing for the Canadian government to do is to write new copyright legislation that enshrines the public good above all other considerations, declares anything edging towards DMCA unconstitutional and restricts the length of copyrights to the limits that were in place before Steamboat Willie's copyright was first just about to expire.

This is a shameful way for a government of Canada to behave. I am disgusted. There are more important moral issues to be disgusted or happy about but if this is one of the "smaller" things, how can we hope your government to do right in the greater things?


Arthur N. Klassen

If you need help finding your MP's contact information, get in touch...


Haiku #31

Summer winding down,
Cool rains threaten my commute
But no hurricanes.

(maybe rain this week in Greater Vancouver -- Hurricane Irene just roared through eastern North America)


The 2015 Mindset List is out

I keep hearing about this list in the news or somewhere but today, I know where to find it. Click here for the 2015 mindset list. It's the usual mix of, "okay... I figured that" and "oh yeah. that's right. wow!" Enjoy...


My comment on American Fiscal Policy

A deficit built on the backs of 2 wars, deep tax cuts and bank rescues should be solved on the backs of the poor, the sick and the old. Yeah right.


HST -- what's the right course of action?

Looking back at my blog, I'm kind of surprised that I never posted anything about the HST debacle in BC. It's overdue that I say something, given my last post about Mr. Campbell's unworthiness for the next job he seems to be heading towards.

I am of two very distinct minds about it as I e-mailed to a friend who asked my opinion...

My first response to harmonization was that when you say you're not considering it (though papers later come to light proving that you were), you don't just ram it through the legislature because of budget conditions or "competitiveness" concerns, not without a protracted public debate first. With that kind of a reversal better to run a referendum then and there. Or if you really believe it's so important, call an election over it. That's the honourable thing to do.

My next response was anger over surrendering made-in-BC policies, such as no sales tax on books, groceries, school supplies and kids' clothes: simple, common-sense, positive social policy that comes cheap at the price, even if some claims are fraudulent (and I know some families did routinely claim all stationary as school supplies).

So I signed the referendum initiative when it came by -- and I don't regret that because the process by which it was brought in was absolutely corrosive to an open government. Like the FastCat ferries. Like the BC Rail lease. Like lots of other things have been done here.

But in hind-sight, and with the experience of the FST to GST transition, I think I actually want the tax to stay. I certainly don't want the Zalm back in BC politics.

And it's never just what the consumer pays as tax that's the problem. What does it do, over all, to the market? I didn't buy the "prices will come down" rhetoric over the GST but it proved to be true for certain classes of goods (big ticket items that we don't notice at the grocery store every week) and promises to scrap it proved treacherous. Are we primarily consumers? or citizens? or neighbours?

Is the pre-HST system fundamentally fairer and less complex for those of our neighbours who run businesses? Maybe not? Well then, despite the feel good of spitefully turning over the tax because it costs us (admittedly more than a few pennies) more than it did, maybe the right thing, the neighbourly thing to do would be to keep the tax. This is about what's best for us, not just for me.

Whether we like it or not, bringing in the HST had consequences which will have further consequences if we try to unravel them. Businesses (especially small ones) have had to bear chaos-costs to bring in the HST but now it's here, and in the long run, it's probably an idea whose good will eventually become self-evidentially, even if it takes another 10 years. (probably less). Should we triple the chaos that the businesses (especially small ones) have to undergo, unrolling the tax now (x2) only to bring it in eventually anyways (x3)? I don't think that's a good idea, even at the x2 level, whether you the harmonization is a good idea or not.

Christy Clark's tweaks to the tax are pointless spin. In fact, I think the benefits from simplification of the tax are subverted by the exemptions that have been thrown as a sop in a possibly vain attempt to keep the HST.

All that said, though, I will be voting NO (if, in the presence of a postal strike, I can get a ballot) and hoping that if the referendum passes (to scrap the tax) the turnout will be so low that the government will be unable to take the result seriously.


Gordon Campbell: Rewarding Bad Behaviour

Regarding Gordon Campbell Set to Become Canada's High Commissioner to the UK

Congratulations, Mr. Campbell, you have received your reward for loyal service to the Federal Government over service to your own electors. I hope you enjoy Britain. I have every time I've visited.

Can we BCers contact our Conservative MPs, perhaps, and ask that this appointment be rescinded? I mean to.

On the face of it, Campbell has simply joined the list of former premiers appointed by the Conservatives to sinecures, regardless of what party they were from, an action which seems noble enough. To British Columbian voters, it is offensive and undeserved. Mr Campbell, in complete disregard of his own campaign promises used his majority in the Legislature to bring a sweeping change to BC's taxation system just because it seemed expedient at the time for a short-term budget shortfall. Then there is his DUI episode in Hawai'i (the mug-shot which the CBC has conveniently lost is here) for which his apologies ring hollow. Then there is the lease on bargain-basement terms of the BC Rail assets to CN (which resulted almost right aways in an ecological disaster and a fatal accident). And then there was the ham-handed way he fulfilled a campaign promise about the PacifiCat ferries (most of the blame there going to another ex-Premier with better intentions than cleverness) which probably saw them sell for more loss than necessary. The most honourable thing I can think of that Mr. Campbell did was to try to bring treaty settlements to First Nations in BC but even the way that has been done has appeared somewhat clumsy to me, as disputed territories were awarded in some cases to whichever group got to the table first. This man deserves no post-elective reward for his "services" to the people of this province.

So what does it look to me like he is being rewarded for? The federal government has always wanted to impose HST on all provinces that had their own provincial sales tax and without considering the dishonourable way in which it was accomplished, the federal government has rewarded Mr. Campbell for performing its will. Western alienation will continue to have a hearing in this province until Ottawa heeds the advice Paul Newman's character gave to Robert Redford's in The Sting: "You can't play your friends like marks." Until the provinces are treated as friends and partners and not potential victims, until the political processes within them is respected by Ottawa -- not to the detriment of the central authority but still, valuing the integrity of their processes above any particular result, in honour of the over-all sovereignty of the nation -- politics in this country will be at constant risk of subversion to the wills of idiots, charlatans, fear-mongers or worse. Why? Because provincial politics will always be at risk of harm from the machinations of federal politics and the people who graduate from provincial to national politics will be more likely to be rogues and stooges than mature and capable practitioners. In Québec, this may very well continue to manifest itself as continued separatism while the rest of us aren't blind to the inherent risks that poses, nor do we possess the same obvious fundamental differences.

Hence, I call upon my MP, the Hon. James Moore, to speak up to his Prime Minister and request that he rescind this sinecure appointment to a dishonoured politician from my province. He doesn't deserve the honour and his appointment to it is mischievous. Conferring it does no honour to my province.


Canadian Budget, party subsidy, a letter to my MP

It seems a small matter but in the middle of the recent budget was a measure which I opposed to my MP and today, when it has been introduced as part of their plans for the budget, I wrote to him, James Moore, about it, with carbon copies going to the Prime Minister, the Finance critics for the Liberals (Scott Brison) and NDP (Peggy Nash) and the leader of the Green Party (Elizabeth May).

Congratulations, James, on your overwhelming victory in our riding.

As I said on the phone to you during the recent election campaign, I oppose ending the per-party subsidy from my taxes. Given that my choice for MP does not ever get to parliament, that subsidy is the only outlet that my federal vote currently has, so taking this away from me is muting my political voice, mine and those of anyone who doesn't believe the large political parties serve their interest. Your party has the power to do it, the votes to do it, perhaps it even seems properly frugal. But you are taking away part of my political voice and that is very unneighbourly, very un-Canadian of you.

In a time when declining interest of the young ought to be the gravest long-term threat to our form of government, anything which pushes those at the margins of its processes out beyond the distance of audibility is something that should not be done.

Please step back from this first sign of the neo-Thatcherism I was fearing would result from your election victory this spring.

If diversity in the Canadian parliament matters to you, perhaps you would consider writing something similar to your MP, especially if Conservative, cc-ing a similar group.


Haiku #30

Doing the hard things
Brings satisfaction unknown
But to such doers.


Canada's National Shout, 2011

So, the election is over and it turned out differently than I expected. I expected area-code 905 (outer Toronto) to be the big story and it did send Conservatives to Ottawa in record numbers, but 416 (inner Toronto) went Conservative even more. I often said that Michael Ignatieff can't fulfill a reasonable "residency requirement" to qualify as a Canadian Prime Minister (if such a thing existed) before the Conservatives started hammering the point in their advertising. Not too surprisingly, the ads hurt the Liberals far more than they helped the Conservatives, at least if popular vote is anything to go by. The Conservatives essentially matched their last popular vote total but gained enough more seats to form a majority government -- good for them but I hope my fears of neo-Thatcherism are overblown. I don't think they are.

Part way into the campaign -- and I don't remember if this was before or after I heard about their popularity rising in Québec -- the thought struck me that if Québec ever stopped voting for "sovereignty" they would be the most natural, consistent NDP voters the country has ever seen. The Parti Québecois is about as socialist-leaning as any provincial branch of the New Democratic Party. I get the impression that it's part of the political culture there that the government is supposed to be there for its citizens, like the "Democratic Socialist" parties of Europe. And that's the biggest story that happened on May 2 this year.

The Bloc Québecois, the herald of separatism in Ottawa, is all but gone, at least for the moment. If the newly elected NDP MPs come to the end of their terms without self-inflicted bullet wounds to the feet, we may have seen the beginning of the end of Québec's 100-year dalliance with departure. I hope so. And the beneficiary was... not the Tories, not the still-discredited Liberals. No, it was the other natural party of Québec: the NDP. And as Chantal Hébert pointed out toward the end of election night, Stephen Harper has an almost Chrétien-style majority. 40% or so of the popular vote, domination of Ontario and significant other areas, and yet, unlike Chrétien, not benefiting much from vote-splitting to win many of his ridings.

Two leaders were knocked out of parliament -- the senior of the four, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc, an honourable competitor to the end and Michael Ignatieff of the Liberals -- but one notable new leader joined them: the ground game in Saanich-Gulf Islands elected the first member and the leader of the Green Party. The Greens' popular vote dropped across the country -- but not as much as might have been expected -- because the now Honourable Elizabeth May made the strategic decision to focus on her own riding. So at the cost of a few percentage points -- that may not mean anything if the now unstoppable Conservatives decide to end public funding of political parties -- the Green Party of Canada now has an elected Member of Parliament.

For my part, I have been voting Green for a few election cycles, partially in protest since I have never lived outside sock-puppet-for-conservative ridings, partially in support of a wider variety of voices. But my biggest reasons are twofold.

On the one hand, the big parties don't care about the little guys, none of them. Not even the perpetual third-brother in federal politics, the NDP. In my view, government's first priority should be protecting the weak from the predations of the strong, whether strong, rich individuals, strong, violent individuals, large ethical-compunction-free corporations or even, as they've often become bands of thugs as well, trade unions (although it was a long descent from their one-time important function).

My other reason is that wise husbandry of our environment is imporant -- not in fear of some still-controversial bogey like "Global Warming" which still has deniability in many quarters -- but just because taking good care of your neighbourhood is what good neighbours do. And we're neighbours, all of us. Of each other, as Canadians, of the other nations of the world, of our floral and faunal co-inhabitants, and we owe it to our neighbours not to wreck what we share. The Conservatives are beholden to the big forces of commerce. The NDP are too cosy with big labour. The Bloc just want out of confederation. And the Liberals only had a "will to power" left before the electorate took a lot of the wind out of their sails: self-evident with the presence of two former NDP premiers in their caucus (change of heart? or opportunisim?). Only the Greens even begin to consider the larger future for its own sake and that of  its inhabitants, our grand-kids. And that's a voice I want to have at our national table, though I had no hand in sending Ms. May there.

On environmental fronts, too much effort has been put into regulatory hammers to force choices this way or that. At the end of the day, those are just new tools to impoverish people by other means. What we need is better education, broader research and more cross-border co-operation to produce the kind of world-wide energy production and distribution revolution that will make everyone, everywhere comfortable and secure in the supply of all the necessities for a livable existence for themselves and their children. I don't know if even the Greens have such a large vision but they're closer to it than anyone else on the Canadian landscape.

So... that's what happened in our National Election, from my point of view, and those are my hopes for what comes next. I'm not holding my breath, but for now, I think I'd be content if our new government went against its own grain and cut down the size of the Prime Minister's Office to pre-Trudeau levels and to re-empower the cabinet and the Commons committees to prevent their government from becoming a neo-Thatcherite nightmare. Are you listening, Mr. Moore? Mr. Harper?


Another energy-use innovation

One of my keenest interests has long been the more efficient use of energy. For myself, this has meant choosing one sedan over an SUV or more than one car (until recently) for a family of five, but I digress. If you know me you've heard me talk about various options -- and I still prefer things that don't consume precious resources over those that do, but this story caught my eye this morning, especially the video presentation.

In one sense, this is for automobiles a little bit like the transition for Diesel- to Diesel-Electric traction for railways -- but it goes farther than that. Diesel-Electric traction is still internal combustion. Professor Müller talks of his device as "contained combustion" and it seems to be useful with limited modifications for deriving power from a wide variety of fuels from liquids to gases, he even mentions Hydrogen.

And the simplicity of the thing! Cool. But without the transmission, the cooling system or a large lubrication system, I wonder how happy the auto makers would be to see this begin to become popular...

oh, and yes... I'll probably post some "back-fillers" on other energy-use stories that have caught my attention over the years. The innovations have been amazing.


C++0x -- draft standard

I have begun using the Java language at my place of work but the language I have done most of my professional work in is C++ (and as I sometimes remind a co-worker who projects a sense that Java is the answer, no matter the question is, "without C, there wouldn't be a good Java Virtual Machine") I have been watching the standards process with some interest and last week-end a new standard for C++ was accepted by the ISO committee over-seeing that project. It's too bad Alexandrescu's latest ideas on iterators probably didn't show up in time to affect the process.

Bjarne Stroustrup who first developed C++ and continues to be involved presents this FAQ, in case anyone is interested. I'll be reading it.

Being in the know...

Every now and then a story comes along that lets me know I'm listening to at least one or two of the right sources for stories. One of my regular reads is an e-column called "I, Cringely" (with obligatory Alan Parsons album cover misquotation: "And so the experiment failed because [high-tech] decided to make [Cringely] in its own image..." -- and wondering if the chap who wears the Cringely name is, in fact married to someone named "Susan Calvin"? -- but now I'm really showing my age and nerdiness).

Today was such a moment when I read Cringely's latest column: I told you so. When I first read (in his earlier column) the story mentioned today, it struck me as the most rational reason why Steve Allen left Microsoft when he did and ultimately in the way he did. And now we get the full-colour Paul Allen's-eye view of the scenario, almost as though he lifted that portion of the story from Cringely's column.

Cringely has had some other interesting things to say about the earthquake in Japan, the resulting tsunami and the downstream results. Add his RSS to your reader. You won't regret it.


Haiku #29

I wrote on a white board at work on Friday (reminiscing from The Princess Bride, this scene), "There will be ballots this spring!"

Someone scrawled, "but no bullets, folks. Let's keep things civilized." The resulting haiku needs no further introduction, offered with prayers for peace in all the places where there are more bullets (and sabotage of the reasonable aspirations of ordinary folks by entrenched structures that impoverish them) than ballots:

Transfers of power
no stormier than spring rains:
nearly as precious.

One more reason why I'm glad we're having another election

This probably hasn't gotten a lot of attention outside the Geek community but this slashdot story is one more reason why I'm glad the government fell. We don't need a DMCA in Canada, we pay levies on blank media but it's just not enough to pay for all those holidays various studio execs need to take, so American lobbyists are calling us a haven for piracy.

Hey, politicians: you want my vote? Pledge never to bring another DMCA clone into the Commons and I'll vote for you, despite my strong disillusionment with the lot of you.

"He who has a Tates' is lost..."

Anyone not heard of the "Tates' Compass"? You're guaranteed to get lost in the wilderness if your only source of direction is a "Tates' compass". "Why?" you ask. Because he who has a Tates' is lost! (hesitates? Act IV. S. 1, paraphrase)

The CBC has put up an interesting "political compass" which puts my views far, far away from all the parties in our election (and indeed reflects the results I got when I took a similar quiz at politicalcompass.org... hmm. I wonder if the CBC got permission to use the phrase?) but tells me that I am closest to one of them. I was surprised until I saw the relative distances they were speaking of: I was about 5% closer to one than the other but in both cases their views were quite wildly far away from my own.

Oh well. It was interesting to see their analysis of the parties along a familiar pair of axes, and the quiz was interesting as far as it goes. Canadian voter! Knock yourselves out! Take the poll and figure out where you would stand.


Vancouver Sun Headline -- Meh

This A.M.: "Battle for B.C. Tory quest for a majority could be determined here"

In a word: claptrap. Two more words: poppycock, horse-hockey.

So long as Québec belongs near-exclusively to the Liberals and the Bloc, B.C. is irrelevant and any rhetoric to the contrary is nonsense.

Any questions?

The Writ! The Writ! (Fourth Canadian election in seven years about to start)

It's a Spring (just don't tell Newfoundland) and that means it's time for an election!

The issues haven't changed much. It's being called "Historic!" because <gasp!> the government fell when the Prime Minister was found in Contempt of Parliament. But let the blood pressure drop: it was on a party line vote that wouldn't have seen the light of day under circumstances we usually call normal. Corruption there may have been, but it still doesn't come anywhere close to HRDC (look for the name "Pierre Pettigrew" in Jane Stewart's wikipedia article) or the Sponsorship Scandal.

One thing is certain: this election will not be decided in BC or Alberta, probably not even in Québec or the Maritimes. Nope, 905 will continue to dominate. We're sure to have another hung parliament with the Conservatives at the front, unless those Conservatives can capture the vote- and riding-rich outer Toronto area. I predict. I do not prefer. Here's my take on our leading politicians (in alphabetic order by surname).

Gilles Duceppe, Bloc Québecois: The senior of the current four leaders, he has run a well-informed and serious caucus. They have been notable to me in that when I have written e-mails to my MP, a cabinet minister, and the shadow ministers from the other three parties, the critics from the Bloc have sent me the most cogent, replies. My message to Québec (chanted): Nous avons besoin des vous; vous avez besoin des nous. So I oppose the ends for which the Bloc stand but with a shadow cabinet like that, I would be tempted to vote for them notwithstanding.

Stephen Harper, Conservative: After all this time, he's still a wonk. You have to admit that he has managed his minority parliaments very skillfully. But his facial expressions still look unnatural. One headline in the Vancouver Sun this week asked if he had maneuvered the opposition into calling this election for him: with popularity rising and not having to pay any price for foisting an election on people who don't want one this time, one could argue he has nothing to lose. For my part, though, he looks too much like Margaret Thatcher to suit me and I fear that Canada's enviable social safety net will only suffer more if he is granted a majority government. Campaign finances are also likely to become more American as a Conservative majority is likely to do away with proportional funding from taxes and may with the same stroke take spending limits off, too.

Michael Ignatieff, Liberal: He may have been born here but he has spent the bulk of his adult life in other countries, especially the USA. The Conservatives have driven this point home in repeated attack ads but it sticks because it's true. He has written to Americans as though he were a fellow American and then, after spending all but fragments of his childhood in Canada he returns and asks us to vote for him as our Prime Minister? If the were the US, his lack of residency would disqualify him from running for president. 'Nuff said.

Jack Layton, NDP: After all these years, he still feels like an over-achieving Toronto City Councilor. The NDP were on the ropes when he took over their leadership and he hasn't helped their fortunes much. In my view, he is too closely allied with big labour (which can be just as oppressive in its own way as big business) for me to view him as a fit guardian of my interests. Also, he hasn't a hope of gaining more then twice as many seats as he currently has -- which would still leave him in charge of a still-all-but-invisible rump.

Elizabeth May, Green: Desperately trying to get even one seat with a popular vote equivalent to the one that gives the Bloc 50 ridings in Québec, she's come out here to BC to try getting into parliament from one area the Greens might actually succeed from. I'm not in love with Green policies, either, but in my Sock-puppet-for-Conservative riding, I have voted for her party as an investment in a more diverse legislative future.

I am a disillusioned voter. I see confrontation and multiple dualisms ("my way good; their way bad") going on and all the while the legislators have forgotten that government should be there to protect the little guy from the big guy, first and foremost: from the large multinational company with enough money power to enrich or impoverish at will, without concern for the results, from the large labour union that has become more concerned with power than protecting the worker, despite their noble beginnings (if you've never belonged to a union as a Canadian worker, as I mostly have not, you owe it to yourself to visit the Crowsnest Pass area between Fernie and Lethbridge to see what it meant for the unions to look out for the workers' interests, for instance), from criminal gangs and other bullies, and even occasionally (but only occasionally) from ourselves.

But if we don't get involved, if we don't at least vote (with or without clothespin attached to our noses) we resign what little chances we have to affect our country as we might want to see. What policies would I like to vote for?

How about these for a start?
* more commitment to education
* more commitment to scientific research into a much wider array of energy alternatives (not just the current fads like wind and solar, how about a Canadian project investigating polywell fusion? or more support for Burnaby's General Fusion?)
* stronger commitment to the Canada Health Act -- and strengthening it into the future
* re-direct the Gas surtax back into Transportation infrastructure (especially mass transit) within the general area where it is collected
* stronger commitment to peacekeeping and independence from American agendas, including going back to a made-in-Canada refugee policy
* aggressive trade development with nations other than the US -- nothing against the US, but our trade surplus becomes a deficit when you remove our sales to the US and that makes us unacceptably vulnerable to every downturn they experience: This is nothing more than a sensible hedging strategy
* national security of supply -- if we are not self-sufficient on our own supplies for dailyl staple commodities, especially food, we may become vulnerable to nonlocal price shocks, and in any event, our resource-use footprint will be higher than necessary. Also, our resources should go first to supplying our own needs and foreign capital should not be permitted to have a controlling interest in any vital supply chain from our resources to our citizens: water, food, energy (all forms), telecommunications and so on

One party is beholden to big labour, others to big business and none will support this kind of hybrid platform. If they did, I could support them gladly. Until they do, I have no clear choice for any election.


Comments on Software Engineering Radio

It's been so long since I posted to this blog that it probably qualifies as a slum but I'm still here. It hasn't been personal tragedy that has kept me from writing here but a large dose of personal busyness. Some of that has settled down to a dull roar -- and I've arrived at a bit of a milestone that bears marking in some way -- and this way seemed the best choice -- so the time has come to dust this blog off and write something, in this case, something a bit more substantive than Yet Another Haiku.

About six months ago, a colleague introduced me to the podcast from Software Engineering Radio, specifically mentioning Scott Meyers' interview regarding C++0x. When I saw that it was Episode 159, I decided to go back and listen to the rest of them: my travel times can be long, auditory input is good in the context of multi-modal commuting and more training in any form is always a good thing.

So now I've listened to the first 50 -- nearly the first 70 by now, actually -- and it's time I should mention my impressions. Here they are:
  1. Given that the first episode is over five years old by now, these pod casts have aged quite well. The approach of sticking to just one topic for an hour-or-so or less allows for many things to be covered reasonably and well without becoming ponderous.
  2. And where a topic can't be exhaustively covered in that time frame, going back to it again and again also gives the opportunity to cover them well.
  3. Further, not necessarily going back to a large topic sequentially, again and again has kept the collection, so far, from being ponderous in that way either.
  4. I found the rationale for choosing to podcast in English despite the fact that the original podcasters are all German speakers amusing: especially the part where most Germans wouldn't understand them because of their strong regional accents. On the question of accents, I was occasionally tempted to write a note about pronunciations, of "meat-ah-model" for instance, but five years on, someone else seems to have put in a word or two and it's been metamodel, properly for some time. My condolences go out to any ESL speaker to get English pronunciation right the first time. It's crazy to keep so much of our linguistic history alive in our orthography, but I digress.
  5. Occasionally I have been put off (a very little) by blanket statements about how some thing is wonderful in Java, or Ruby, or with Spring or whatever whereas "you just can't do that in ..." C or especially C++. Particularly, when it comes to memory or object management (or indeed management of any kind of resource) stating that "it's just so hard in C++" again and again struck me as naïve about C++. Admittedly, it may be easier to do bad things in C++ (which has been my favourite language for about 10 years) but by the same token, it is often more possible and indeed cleaner to do the right thing in C++ than in Java, for instance. I have just begun using Java and I find the constant use of the acquire-try-doSomething-finally-release idiom really clunky. In C++ I would create an auto-release object around what I wanted to acquire and the destructor (whose invocation time is known precisely) would take care of releasing it at the point I would choose, without further ado. And Java is somehow better at that point? As for memory leaks, my impressions are that when Java programs leak, the leaks can be far harder to find than in otherwise well-written C++.
  6. This being put off has gone the other way as well: along with denouncing what I find useful, the podcasts have sometimes praised things which when I have met them seem wrong-headed. In the Java work I have begun to do, I have been exposed to Spring's dependency injection. After hearing it praised so highly in the podcasts, I was disappointed to see that it was essentially a way to acquire the use of something implicitly, without the costs of instantiation and management being exposed to me. It's all very well to say "@Component" or "@Autowired" about some piece and have it magically instantiate at the right time and the right place, but it strikes me as the kind of thing that would encourage sloppy practices rather than make good practices easier. But to each his own. With the way that Java mashes up the interface with the implementation in an individual class, I can see the benefit of pushing away these details. I've just seen so many people do all kinds of things without understanding their costs that I am not by default convinced that this is the right approach.
  7. At times, I have also been struck by the blind faith placed in garbage collectors (which have admittedly gotten a lot better since I saw someone showing off Smalltalk's wonders in the mid-80s) while conventional memory management, especially in C and C++ is maligned: inherently leaky etc. etc. Ten years ago, this would be a relative criticism that stuck but with good class library support (such as that in a modern version of Boost, for instance, with a good modern compiler) the explicit control given to these things through reference-counted pointers, auto pointers, strong and weak references etc. seems to me to be preferable by far to the periodic holiday that, for instance, my Java-based cellphone goes on at the mercy of its need to collect the garbage. Others may disagree, and indeed, I have said enough in the last three items to spark several religious wars. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that Java, Ruby or Spring are always "wrong" and C++ is always "right". I suppose I have fallen prey to the temptation to defend C++ to the death when hearing it falsely accused from other quarters. Add a grain of your favourite salt at this point and long live the free exchange of ideas!
  8. At the time it was posted, one podcast was described as an experiment in a hands-on how-to in using meta models in developing a simple Java component. Even on a bus, far from a keyboard, this sounded interesting and one of these days I'd still like to sit down and test drive what they were talking about while listening to it again.
  9. In the mean time, there have been many VERY profitable things to hear on the pod casts: discussions about various agile approaches to software development, basic topics (error handling) and more advanced ones (concurrency, ultra large scale systems), daily-use ideas (refactoring) and arcana (internals of GCC, C++0x and Corba -- all with people who actually knew what they were talking about!) as well as interviews with folks (whether as well known as Grady Booch, or not) whose ideas and/or tools we have been depending on for years: it's an impressive collection and has been profitable. I expect the rest of it will be as well.
I am very likely to continue listening to the podcasts because even where I disagree with the presenters, it's exposed me to ideas that I have not gotten from other directions. Some 18th or 19th century poetic piece said that "even fools have their story" and neither the SE-Radio team nor their guests are fools. I commend their work-product as an effective tool to continue enriching any professional software developer's toolbag, to continue exposing oneself to new ideas and not least to help realize that there are more ways of solving every day problems than the one vendor, system or language that one uses all the time.

Thanks, guys, ever so much, even as I finish with one more tiny critique: the ID tags of the MP3 files are occasionally very inconsistent, claiming, for instance to be by team@se-radio.bet or @se-radion.net but perhaps that, too, is something that has been taken care of in a more reliable way since the episodes I am currently listening to were put out four years or more ago.


Haiku #28

It's somewhat better
To be useful than happy
But only somewhat.