Ben Laurie blathering

27 Jan 2008

Open Source Is Just Economics

Filed under: General,Open Source,Programming — Ben @ 5:39

A number of conversations I have had recently indicate to me that a lot of the world still doesn’t get what’s behind open source. It’s easy: economics.

The first thing you can trivially explain is why people work on open source at all. This has been a source of a vast amount of speculation, particularly irritatingly by sociologists. Ben Hyde has a fantastic list to which I will only add the explanation I love to hate: geek pride. We do it just to show off to each other.

Nope, it’s all bollocks – the motivation is simple: by solving your common problem together, you reduce your costs. There is absolutely no point in financing five different companies to produce five different products that don’t quite do what you want – far better to tweak the open source thing to do exactly what you need (often expressed as “scratching your itch” around the ASF).

Some people whine that, because this is an option open only to geeks, open source is not really available to completely open participation. Well, kinda. If you aren’t a geek yourself, you can always hire one. What do you mean, you don’t want to spend your money on free stuff? Why not? We all spend our time on it. Time that we could convert into money, if we so chose.

So why don’t we? Because participating in the open source projects we participate in is worth more to us, in purely monetary terms, in the long run. This is why I no longer have much to do with Apache: it does what I need. I have no itch to scratch.

This leads me into the second easily explainable fact. People complain that open source projects don’t care about users. It’s true. They don’t – they care about people who are participating in the costs of producing the software. If you aren’t contributing, why would your voice matter?

Of course, you have to be careful when applying these obvious truths to what you see around you. For example, the presence of companies like Red Hat in the market complicates analysis. They have their own set of economic drivers, including the needs of their customers, which they then apply to the calculation around their participation in various projects. As the reach of open source extends, so do end users actually start to get an indirect say in what happens. But it costs them. Money.

Back in the good old days, it was so much simpler. All it cost me then was time.

12 Jan 2008

Me-ville Versus The Global Village

Thanks to Adriana, I just came across an intriguing post on VRM. In it, two completely different versions of VRM are presented (he thinks he presented four, but I claim that the “vendor control” end of the spectrum is CRM, not VRM).

In Me-Ville, everything is anonymous and reputation/value-based. In the Global Village, its all about long-term relationships. I think this divide is interesting and sums up the differences in the approach taken by techies, like Alec Muffett and me versus the approach the fluffier, social people like Adriana Lukas and Doc Searls would like to take.

Who’s right? Well, normally I’d say I am, but I’m not sure I really know in this case. But recognition is the first step towards reconciliation.

23 Oct 2007

Groklaw on the iPlayer

Filed under: General — Ben @ 9:37

Groklaw has an interesting interview with Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium about the BBC’s iPlayer. Some fascinating things I didn’t know come out in this interview

the BBC management team who are responsible for the iPlayer are a checklist of senior employees from Microsoft who were involved with Windows Media. A gentleman called Erik Huggers who’s responsible for the iPlayer project in the BBC, his immediately previous job was director at Microsoft for Europe, Middle East & Africa responsible for Windows Media. He presided over the division of Windows Media when it was the subject of the European Commission’s antitrust case. He was the senior director responsible. He’s now shown up responsible for the iPlayer project.

What a coincidence, given that Acacia have also been in the news over the employment of an ex-MSFT senior manager

Acacia Research Corporation (NASDAQ:ACTG – News) announced today that its Acacia Technologies group, a leader in technology licensing, has named Brad Brunell as Senior Vice President.

Mr. Brunell joins Acacia from Microsoft, where during his 16 year career he held a number of management positions, including General Manager, Intellectual Property Licensing.

But back to the iPlayer…

One of the points that they made to us was that they [the BBC Trust] basically relied upon the information conveyed to them by the BBC management team responsible for the iPlayer and that’s not something that they intend to continue doing

it’s peer-to-peer, and in fact one of the more worrying aspects is that you have no control over your node. It loads at boot time under Windows, the BBC can use as much of your bandwidth as they please (laughter), in fact I think OFCOM, you know, made some kind of estimate as to how many hundreds of millions of pounds that would cost everyone

Useful Legal Resource

Filed under: General — Ben @ 5:09

I was bemoaning the lack of an online copy of all our laws when Lilian Edwards pointed out BAILII. Good call!

26 Sep 2007


Filed under: General,Open Source — Ben @ 9:44

While I was out of the country (of course) my backup machine died, with a flaky root filesystem. I’d been expecting this to happen since the disk had been showing errors for some time, so I already had a new disk ready to replace it. I’ve used Amanda for backups for so long I can’t remember when I started, but lately both The Bunker and FreeBMD have started using Bacula, so I decided to give it a go.

This turned out to be a great idea! Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Works with Vista – Yes, my kids both have Vista machines. I’d completely failed to get them working with Amanda, which needs to be able to see their disks via SMB. In contrast, Bacula runs an agent on each machine.
  • Can span tapes – Amanda can’t deal with a backup that is bigger than a tape. Bacula has no issue with that at all. Obviously with Amanda this means you can’t safely have a filesystem larger than your tape, or you have to jump through some pretty large hoops. With Bacula I can have filesystems any size I want.
  • Uses tapes efficiently – perhaps arguable, this one. Amanda kinda heuristically tries to fill the tapes, so you get full backups as often as is possible, and in any case always uses a full tape each day. Bacula instead uses a rigid full/incremental schedule (as defined by you). This means you probably get full backups less often, but uses far less tape, since Bacula is quite happy to append to the tape until it is full. So far I’ve been running about 2 weeks and have used 3.5 tapes, as opposed to Amanda’s 14.
  • You can see what is going on! – Bacula has an interactive utility that shows what it is up to. This is very useful when setting up, especially since you can schedule individual backup runs to happen right now instead of their scheduled time.

Add to that the fact that from having nothing installed (not even an OS) to having Bacula running only took me a few hours, and most of that was waiting for things to install, thanks to FreeBSD and their ports system.

That said, there is one thing I’m not superkeen about with Bacula: its has a pretty arcane configuration system. I’m sure there are reasons for the strange way it is subdivided, but they are not apparent to me.

21 Sep 2007

Marketing Doublespeak From TomTom

Filed under: General,Motorbikes,Rants — Ben @ 6:15

I’m having a bit of a run-in with TomTom at the moment. The details are boring, but the short version is I bought a second device, for the car, registered it at their site, and as a result de-registered my existing GPS and associated the add-ons I’d bought for it with the new one. This would be OK except that they are now refusing to let me change it back!

If I want to escalate my complaint about this, here’s what I have to do. What you have to love about this is

TomTom wants to do the following:

  • Make it easy for you to raise your feedback

If you are not satisfied with any aspect of our service or products, tell us about your concerns by writing us a letter.

Our address is:

TomTom Sales BV
Customer Support – Customer Relations Department
Rembrandtplein 35
1017 CT Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Isn’t that awesome? We want to make it easy, so schlep down to your post office and figure out international postage – that’s so much better than this new-fangled email thing.

Of course, they don’t really want to make it easy – then they might have to investigate some minor complaints, and that would be a waste of their fine minds. They want me to be seriously pissed off before I bother them. And I am, but, thanks to the blogosphere, I can take my complaint to the people that matter: their customers.

10 Sep 2007

Breaking News: Hi Tech is Cool

Filed under: General — Ben @ 22:27

I was just stoking the steam engine that pumps our well, when the town crier mentioned this story. I was struck by the quote

It reveals that older media such as TV, radio and even DVDs are being abandoned in favour of more modern technology.

Go figure. And they said the spinning jenny would never catch on!

1 Aug 2007

Old School Journalism

Filed under: General,Rants — Ben @ 13:21

I was planning to write about the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) calling for YouTube to be closed down in order to combat bullying, but there seems little point, since in the same article Emma-Jane Cross of BeatBullying hit the nail on the head

“Calls for social networking sites like YouTube to be closed because of cyberbullying are as intelligent as calls for schools to be closed because of bullying.”

You’ll notice that in the above, I do not link to PAT, nor do I link to YouTube, Emma-Jane Cross or BeatBullying. Normally I would, but as I was about to embark on a session of Googling, I thought “Why do I have to do this? If the BBC had got with the programme there would be links in their article that I could follow.”

Which leads me on to the thought that old media should stop whining about how they are the real journalists and we losers with blogs are just some pale imitation and start, instead, providing a service that is as good as the average blog, instead of a mere transposition of their print columns onto web pages.

The whole point about the web is it allows you to link to your sources, to tangents of interest and to full versions of documents mentioned. But the old media does none of this: they think the web is like paper. If they don’t want to go the way of the dinosaurs they need to drag themselves into the 20th century and start linking.

4 Jul 2007

FreeBMD Wins Society of Genealogists’ Award

Filed under: General — Ben @ 12:25

Many years ago Graham Hart, Camilla von Massenbach (my wife) and I started FreeBMD, little realising that over the years it would become one of the world’s most popular genealogical websites fuelled by one of the world’s largest volunteer transcribing efforts. Recently, the Society of Genealogists recognised the importance of the effort with their Prince Michael of Kent award. Although the plaque reads

Society of Genealogists
Prince Michael of Kent Award 2007
Awarded to the trustees of FreeBMD
In acknowledgement of the outstanding contribution to Genealogists across the globe by offering free access to the Births, Marriages and Deaths Indexes online.

it is really the thousands of volunteers who have worked tirelessly on this project that deserve all the credit.

8 Apr 2007

Self-modelling Robots

Filed under: Brain Function,General,Toys — Ben @ 18:49

This guy made these cool robots. Basically they do experiments on themselves to figure out what shape they are and how their motors are wired up. Then you rip an arm off, and they do some more experiments to figure out their new shape.

I wonder if this explains the mean kitten experiment? The mobile kitten can do experiments to figure out what its legs and stuff do, but the immobile one cannot, so the mobile one gets more clues about the motion it sees than the immobile one.

Whatever, its a damn cool idea, though they clearly need to do some work on the walking thing!

(via BoingBoing)

31 Mar 2007

One Laptop Per Adult

Filed under: General — Ben @ 5:02

I recently attended the security summit for the XO laptop, and one of the things that concerned us was that the dogged insistence that only children, and only in the targetted countries, would get XO laptops is going to create a market for stolen laptops in wealthier countries.

So, I read with great pleasure that Quanta are planning to sell an XO-alike.

18 Mar 2007

Statistics Porn

Filed under: General — Ben @ 12:52

Its one of those ideas that seems obvious once you’ve seen it – plot data on a graph, add size and colour, and then animate over time. That’s five dimensions, folks!

So, here’s an example application – income vs. life expectancy vs. population vs. location vs time. Notice the blue dot where life expectancy drops sharply whilst income stays roughly level. That’s South Africa – interesting. And a cool feature I just discovered is you can click on the dot, make sure “Trails” is ticked, and then run the animation…

Here are some more examples.

ObDisclaimer: yes, this is now Google’s. No, that’s not why I blogged it.

15 Mar 2007

CO2 and Global Warming

Filed under: General — Ben @ 14:36

I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, but it has long concerned me that there seems to be entirely too much politics and not enough science around the whole “man causes global warming” theory. Every conversation I’ve had with a zealot has centred around the idea that I must be some crazed, irresponsible loon if I don’t want to reduce CO2 emissions, because clearly I’m risking the future of the world. And, obviously, every responsible person will act to avoid that risk by doing their bit to cut down CO2.

But am I risking the world? How do we know that, say, the extra CO2 we put in the atmosphere is not saving us from the ice age that would otherwise be upon us?
So, in that vein, I am grateful to my dad for pointing me to research into the link between CO2 and temperature. The rather startling conclusion is that, yes, CO2 and temperature are linked, but the CO2 rise lags the temperature rise by 4-800 years. The scientists out there will need no further explanation.
I know I’m going to regret posting this, but what the hell – bring on the flames.

8 Mar 2007

Translation, Please?

Filed under: General,If You Really Loved Me — Ben @ 22:39

I love BoingBoing, but occasionally it gives me indigestion:

my own personal thoughts on postmodernism concerns the fact that it is inches away from finally bridging the gap between western analytical thought and romanticism. postmodernists come to question the fabric of reality enough to allow for a mckenna style archaic revival to be the solution to our ills, entheogens cleansing the doors of perception from all hyper-real simulacra, resurrecting culture and language as the sacred entities they used to be.

Can someone tell me what that means?

28 Feb 2007

Map Porn

Filed under: General — Ben @ 11:38

5,000 years of conquest in the Middle East. Beautifully presented, and fascinating.

25 Feb 2007

MySociety Do It Again

Filed under: General — Ben @ 22:34

I’ve been using yet another fantastic site from MySociety, Neighbourhood Fix-It. As always, the idea is fantastically simple, but the execution so perfect. You put in a postcode. You see a map with pointers to problems the local council should fix. You can add your own problems, in which case the council is notified on your behalf, or update existing ones. Beautiful.

What’s even more fantastic is the scrollable, clickable map is done entirely without Javascript. How cool is that?

16 Feb 2007

West London Tram

Filed under: General — Ben @ 12:48

I realise this probably isn’t of interest to many of my readers, but its an issue that affects me so you get to read about it.

Ken Livingstone has a hard-on for a tram running down the Uxbridge Road (which is very near where I live). I have absolutely no idea why, because practically everyone else thinks its a totally stupid idea. I won’t bother to link to it, because if it affects you, you’ll already know too much.

What I will link to is the petition against it hosted by Number 10.

22 Jan 2007

OSDL: Its All About Linux

Filed under: General — Ben @ 17:32

The Open Source Development Labs have merged with the Free Standards Group and, in a sudden fit of honesty, admitted that they were never really about open source or free standards by renaming themselves The Linux Foundation.

7 Jan 2007

To Do Lists

Filed under: Brain Function,General — Ben @ 13:31

I had a revelation about To Do lists.

Every now and then, I reach the point where I have so many immediate tasks that I start thrashing (which is a geek term for what happens when active tasks on a computer exceed its physical RAM capacity, so it spends its entire life swapping things to disk and back to RAM instead of actually doing anything). I’m particularly liable to this when some of the tasks are ones I don’t particularly want to do.

I have a natural tendency to thrash somewhat anyway (other people call it multitasking), so it usually takes me a little while to recognise when I’ve hit this problem. Once I do, I usually decide I need a To Do list. So, sometimes I waste some more time trying to figure out a better way of doing To Do lists, though these days I usually just use OmniOutliner. gtodo is also nice and lightweight, and I use that sometimes.

So, then I put all the things I’m thrashing on into whatever tool it is, prioritise them, and it stops me thrashing. Why? I suspect because once I know I’m not going to forget to do things I can then concentrate on whatever’s at the top of the list (I believe this is the theory behind that fantastically complicated system some people like to use for running their lives whose name I’ve forgotten right now). Anyway, after a while (usually months), I realise I’m thrashing again, and I repeat the whole process.

The fact I have to repeat the process obviously means that at some point I stop using the list. I never remember deliberately doing this, so I suspect I don’t. But why? And this is the revelation: because until my list of current urgent tasks reaches some level, I don’t need a list. Non-urgent tasks I never need a list for, it seems I remember them or they become irrelevant, and, despite the claims of users of the fantastically complicated system, remembering them doesn’t consume vast amounts of my brain.

Also, when I look at abandoned lists, I find they’re full of stuff I didn’t do in the end, and it doesn’t matter. I also find they’ve reached a length where clearly I’m never going to do many of the things on them, so its lucky I just kinda forget about them.

When I was a lot younger, I did once make a comprehensive list of everything I had to do on a project. I added up the time it would take and it came to 5 years. I threw the list away. To Do lists seem to always suffer this fate: they grow indefinitely, and eventually (or, in my case, quite rapidly) reach a size where their maintenance cost exceeds their benefit, as well as being, frankly, depressing. So, in short, I’m glad I forget them, but I wish I could recognise my occasional need for them a little sooner.


  • That fantastically complicated system some people like to use for running their lives whose name I’ve forgotten right now is called Getting Things Done (or GTD).
  • The Omni Group, who I love, are working on some kind of widget for doing this stuff called OmniFocus. If its like their usual stuff, it’ll rock. But I do hope they recognise users like me, who probably only occasionally need it, and so don’t want to invest a huge (or even small) amount of time in setup – this is why I like OmniOutliner and gtodo – you can go from nothing to a useful list in about 30 seconds flat.
  • Until I had this revelation, I didn’t even realise why I didn’t like the more complex systems – but if you’re only going to use something 5% of the time, you don’t want to spend any time learning it or setting it up. One thing I do miss in every simple system I’ve found is a way to manage dependencies, though.
  • I’ve discovered that certain drugs can suppress my tendency to thrash, in exchange for tunnel-vision single-mindedness. I like this occasionally, but I’m not sure I’d like to live like it. But I can certainly see where Erdös was coming from.

28 Dec 2006

Official: PHP Security Sucks

Filed under: General,Rants,Security — Ben @ 13:24

I am disappointed (but not surprised) to see Stefan Esser resigning from the PHP Security Team. All my security interactions with PHP have been disappointing, to say the least. Amazingly enough, Zend, who make money from PHP, say

It is not the case, however, that the PHP project is trying to conceal the fact that PHP has been implemented in a very unsafe way. But Suraski [Zend CTO] does think it preferable to produce a patch before publishing any bug report.

Yes, it is preferable, but you have to actually produce the patch. Failure to do so is not a reason to withhold the security flaw – if we follow that path we’re back to the bad old days where security flaws get brushed under the carpet and users suffer. PHP need to get with the program: fix the bugs in a reasonable amount of time, or have the world know what a useless bunch you are.

Esser paints a pretty bleak picture of an institutional head-in-the-sand attitude in the PHP developer community

… as soon as you try to criticise PHP security, you become persona-non-grata in the security team. In addition many of his suggestions were ignored because the developers considered Esser’s choice of words, too abrasive. He says that he had stopped counting the number of times he was called a traitor when he published a bug report on a vulnerability in PHP.


… bugs were sometimes not correctly fixed or were re-introduced. This was often not noticed because there was no test-rig for exploits and the idea of having one was categorically rejected.

I’ve always advised against PHP because of its lack of security, but now I know its developers are actually actively campaigning to ensure it is insecure I think its time I worked a bit harder at it.

So: PHP security sucks. Don’t use it.

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