Older blog entries for wlach (starting at number 56)

Gas price gouging

Just read through the study that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published on "gas price gouging". As usual, the blamed party is the oil companies, who apparently are pricing gasoline in excess of the cost of production. What's missing in the report is any analysis of SUPPLY. You don't need to be an energy economist to realize that people will consume more of a commodity if the price goes down. The world is consuming pretty much all of global oil production right now, this stuff is available on a global market, so what other signal can the market give to Canadians to moderate their use of oil other than increasing the price? Shortages?

Ok, so maybe you're a bit of a socialist (as I am) and think that the government should sometimes step in to regulate a market. We have a good amount of the resource right here in Canada, so we could just keep more for ourselves, right? This principle was put into practice with regard to energy in the 1980 with the National Energy Program. Mechanisms were put into place to restrict oil exports to the United States and the rest of the world and force depressed prices here in Canada. Eastern Canada got cheap gasoline at a steep economic cost to Western Canada. More than twenty years later, the NEP is still bitterly remembered in Calgary (capital of Alberta, Canada's oil-rich Western Province). Do we really want to go back there again?

I don't think so, but that's not really the point. There are clearly much bigger issues here beyond the prices people pay at the pump and "greedy oil companies" (the needless dependance of Canada's primarily urban population on the automobile being the big one). When are we going to get a decent public discussion going in Canada on energy issues?

Syndicated 2007-05-11 19:10:41 from wlach

Unstable societies and the canary in the tar sands

Avery just posted a pretty interesting article comparing the cultural institutions of the United States with those of France. The conclusion that he draws is that the states is an "unstable" society while France is a "flow" society. While I haven't spent enough time in Europe to really comment on the latter (although I suspect he may be somewhat overstating the case), I think his analysis of North America is essentially spot on. However, I'd like to add something to it:

Unstable societies require the continual input of greater and greater amounts of high quality energy to avoid collapse.

What else will allow the rapid development of dispersed urban centers (with correspondingly expensive cost of transportation and infrastructure)? What else will compensate for a high bankruptcy and failure rate in business? What else will compensate for the routine and accepted displacement of unskilled labor due to relentless increases in "productivity"?

Much has been made in Canada recently about the development of the tar sands in the province of Alberta, but I think people are missing the real story in all the hullabaloo about that province's spectacular growth. Twenty years ago, you couldn't find anyone willing to spit on the tar sands. Today, the province is experiencing an economic boom based on an extraction method with an incredibly low EROI (5:1 versus 17:1 or better for oil produced by conventional means). This begs the question: why are the (multinational!) oil companies bothering with the tar sands if there are more lucrative opportunities for energy extraction out there? Why put so much capital and expertise into something which provides such a poor return on investment?

Perhaps I'm missing something (if so, please comment), but this indicates to me that we're experiencing real problems in finding the sorts of high quality sources of energy which sustain our current social and economic systems.

Syndicated 2007-04-21 19:02:01 from wlach

Some thoughts on the suburbs, mass transit, and politics

A little late, but I've been meaning to talk about this for a while:

Although it's been years and years since I've actually lived in Ottawa, I still go back fairly frequently to visit. When I do, I invariably get an update on municipal policy from my mother. The most recent story of note was the cancellation of the O-Train project after the recent municipal elections, when a conservative mayor was elected.

Urbanities blamed the "idiots from suburbia" for this. And indeed, most of the votes for Larry O'Brien (Ottawa's new conservative mayor) did come from the suburbs. But ultimately, this never really struck me as being a particularly constructive point of view: people who live outside of the metro area never struck me as being dumber, less reasonable, or less well informed than those who live inside it. They may have made a different choice as far as living arrangements than I have (or will, if I can help it), but their reasons for doing at least understandable to me.

Even if they weren't understandable, it would be rather pompous and self-righteous of me to tell other people how to go about living their lives. The suburban dream's realization may ultimately be something of a nightmare, but calling people idiots and their aspirations stupid isn't likely to endear them to your point of view. If we want to create a better world, wouldn't it be preferable to enact policies and build infrastructure that would enable these people to realize those aspirations?

And, come to think of it, wouldn't a light rail system linking the suburbs with the center of the city be exactly this sort of thing? Even if you didn't use it, it would mean a shorter commute to work because of reduced traffic congestion, an overall reduction in smog and CO2 emissions, an increase in property values, and a whole host of other things which should play exactly to the needs of these people. What's really going on here?

In fact, it's pretty simple. In order to settle a political score with one of his enemies, John Baird, minister of the environment in Canada's "new" government, inappropriately leaked information and withheld funding during the campaign. This cast a negative light on the project from which it never recovered. It was canceled in December 2006, ultimately costing the city seventy five million dollars in fines:


Changing the North American mentality just isn't going to happen overnight. Not without a crisis, anyway. But corrupt politicians using their power inappropriately? At the very least we can draw attention to them and try to ensure that they (and their "new" government) don't get re-elected.

Syndicated 2007-04-17 06:48:45 from wlach

Got the urge to upgrade my emacs installation a while back, was pleasantly surprised to find that installing/running the latest version was as easy as:

cd $HOME/src
wget ftp://alpha.gnu.org/gnu/emacs/pretest/emacs-22.0.97.tar.gz
tar zxvf emacs-22.0.97.tar.gz
cd emacs-22.0.97
./configure --prefix=$HOME/emacs22
make install
PATH=$HOME/emacs22/bin:$PATH emacs
Seems like a nice overall improvement over previous versions so far and it hasn't crashed on me once. Of particular note is the default inclusion of RMS's wonderful GNU Emacs LISP Reference Manual in info, which has been a godsend in my previous disconnected-by-default state of being. I know that's something one is supposed to be able to discover/download/install seperately, but after almost 10 years of using emacs variants, it's only within the last year that the zen of the program has begun to come together in my head.

Heck, a year ago I didn't even *bother* with M-x info (a bounty of well-organized, easily navigable information), assuming that it was just legacy garbage that had been obsoleted by the interwebs and google. Never mind Emacs Lisp, which I assumed was the domain of the terminally insane. Now it's become pretty clear how one could conceivably have a computing session which never left emacs, and why one might want to do so.

Strange how vintage software and idioms seem to excite me more than anything else these days, at least when it comes down to tools which I use for actual productive work. For the more superficial things in life, I'm quite happy with my Gaim, Evolution and Mozilla, thank you very much (except perhaps for the latter's habit of leaking pixmaps). Perhaps I'll write more on that epiphany later.

Syndicated 2007-04-08 22:29:16 from wlach

Why oh why...

Why oh why do most daemons fork into the background by default? For example:

  gnome-screensaver [OPTION...]

Help Options:
  -?, --help               Show help options
  --help-all               Show all help options
  --help-gtk               Show GTK+ Options

Application Options:
  --version                Version of this application
  --no-daemon              Don't become a daemon
  --debug                  Enable debugging code
  --display=DISPLAY        X display to use

If I'm going to run a daemon manually, chances are that I'm trying to debug it. When you're debugging things, you want to be able to kill it quickly if need be (not to mention easily see what it's spewing out...). I certainly don't want it to fork into the background, daemonize itself, and start writing to the syslog (in the case of system-level daemons).

How much work is it for the writer of an initscript (or session manager, what have you) to add an argument to the program's arglist? Practically zero. Meanwhile I (the helpful person debugging your daemon) is doomed to waste valuable time figuring out how to get the behaviour that I need. This makes no sense!

Syndicated 2007-03-02 07:05:55 from wlach

New Laptop

Months after replacing its hard disk, my trusty old Thinkpad finally gave out last month (blown solder on the motherboard). Figuring that it wasn't worth sinking any more money into the poor old sinking ship, I decided to get a new laptop (normally I'd wait and just continue using my desktop, but present circumstances necessitate frequent travel).

Following pcolijn's earlier advice, I decided to go the Dell route and bought a wonderful D620. It's a pretty nifty machine and (depending on how you configure it) doesn't require any binary drivers on Linux. An install of Debian unstable went exceedingly smoothly. Apparently some people were complaining about the quality of the LCD panel a while back, but I noticed no issues whatsoever.

If anyone wants spare parts for a Thinkpad r32, let me know...

AlumNit News

I have made the executive decision that the official mascot shall be a rooster.


ncm seems to have a nose for interesting articles and books. The article he just linked to on nutrition is well worth reading. Not surprised that the author served as the executive editor of Harper's: his essay reads like one of the better articles from that magazine.

Syndicated 2007-02-16 05:48:35 from wlach

Decided to start syndicating my Advogato entries from LiveJournal, instead of keeping two seperate diaries. I'm filtering syndication entries by tag, so the technical community there will be spared my musings on politics, philosophy, and day-to-day life (although I reserve the right to syndicate that stuff too in certain situations).


In open source news, I've just released version 4.3 of WvStreams: the infamous C++ network library behind WvDial, Nitix, and other fine pieces of software.

One new feature included in this release which I think merits a look is Peter Zion's WvStreamsDebugger: a command line client for manipulating all the sockets/workers a particular network application might have on its mainloop at any given time. This kind of command-line goodness can be a real godsend when debugging issues with a piece of software on a customer's system. I'm sure the idea could be easily reapplied to other frameworks and scenarios, so check it out!

Syndicated 2007-02-07 20:43:42 from wlach

5 Nov 2006 (updated 6 Nov 2006 at 05:32 UTC) »

Just upgraded my workstation at home to Edgy the other day. As expected, there were a few minor problems:

  1. mono-apache-server (the refuse from an experiment with Novell's iFolder) refused to restart properly when prompted to by the update-manager, forcing me to do a 'dpkg-reconfigure -a'.
  2. My mixer settings were somehow set to complete silence (quick fix was to fire up alsamixer).

... nothing too crazy, but I'm sure a regular user would be totally lost on how to deal with these problems.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that treating a system as a giant ecosystem of packages, while (mostly) fine from a development perspective, just isn't a good model for something that's intended to be used by the non-tech-savvy.


Some inspiration, in case anyone feels like tackling this problem:

The model that Nitix uses is to keep the base OS (including the kernel and everything needed for a basic server operating system) as a readonly image that is selected on boot-up. Upgrading from one version to another involves selecting the new version from our softupdate service, then rebooting into that version. If it doesn't boot successfully, we automatically revert back to whatever you were using before. The set of base binaries that a user has at any given time is completely determined: either your computer works or it doesn't.

Yes, there are problems when the user needs some custom piece of software that we don't provide. Problems which would only become more apparent when a Linux distribution needs to cover such a large set of use cases. Still, I think there is a useful compromise between this approach and the current one used by most Linux distributions (for example: running custom applications in some kind of virtualized environment).

25 Aug 2006 (updated 25 Aug 2006 at 23:08 UTC) »

I just created a public project page for my D-Bus bindings on open.nit.ca. Feel free to peruse if you're one of those people who wants to do interprocess communication using D-Bus and WvStreams: in my opinion, my D-Bus bindings make this type of programming this type of application even easier than it is with plain-old WvStreams (using unix domain sockets or similar).

2 Aug 2006 (updated 2 Aug 2006 at 20:38 UTC) »
apenwarr: A few years back, I remember reading an article (unfortunately I can't find it cited anywhere) about a little experiment that was conducted on a first year psychology class. Each student was asked to fill out a questionaire describing how they would react to a number of routine situations. A few weeks later they all received exactly the same analysis of their personality (containing such exciting generalities as "you are outgoing sometimes and introverted at others" and "you have abilities that you have not yet capitalized on"). As I recall, just about every student thought the analysis was tailored to their unique personality.

This isn't to discount the Myers-Briggs test entirely.. just that you have to take into account the mind's ability to fill in all sorts of blanks, especially when you're being told what you want to hear. The INTJ profile is pretty flattering as I recall (I scored as one too). Who doesn't want to be an independent and creative freethinker?

Update: A co-worker correctly attributed this experiment to Bertram Forer.

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