Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

A better WannaCry advisory for schools

The Ministry of Education sent out a very poor advisory to schools about “WannaCry” today, based primarily (from what it seems) on the poor information coming from CERT-NZ. The advisory contains several factual errors, which the Ministry should not be spreading to schools.

I’ve written an improved advisory (I’ll update it as required).

Continue reading

Open source in government is not important

Labour’s “ICT” policy includes a statement on “Open software” in government, part of which is attempting to get two thirds of government agencies to use some sort of open-source software by 2015.  This is basically what you expect from politicians when talking about “ICT” (or nearly anything, unfortunately) – they jump on whatever bandwagon/buzzwords are popular without any understanding of what should be done.

Firstly, I would be shocked if more than two thirds of government agencies were not already using some form of open-source software already.  For a start, it’s nearly impossible to use the Internet without accessing something running Linux or Apache.

More importantly, it makes no sense at all to aim for governments to be using more open-source software.  They should be using the software most suited to the job at hand, whether closed source or open source.  What benefit is there in requiring open source?  If they think it’s cheaper, then they should look more closely, because it’s often not.  The same applies to being more secure.  There are absolutely situations where the best choice is an open-source one – but there are absolutely situations where closed source is better.  I don’t want government employees forced to use less than the best tools because of some ideological burden placed on them by someone wanting a cushy job for the next three years.

They have a few other requirements:

Software developed in-house will be made publicly available.  A nice idea, but (a) I’m fairly sure that most of the in-house software is of no use to anyone else, (b) I suspect most of the software you’d assume was in-house was actually developed by non-government contractors, and, most significantly, (c) not all code is ready to be shared.  If a government sysadmin writes a quick script to do a job, do we really want to add the pressure that it will be publicly available (and given that it’s the government, it’s reasonable to assume that someone will be looking at everything).  As long as the software does the job, that’s good enough (in the “in-house” context).  What would be worthwhile is ensuring that government agencies consider whether software should be released to the public – I’m sure that there is some that would be of general interest and where the quality is suitably high.

Agencies considering technology purchases over $2 million would first evaluate whether publicly available technology would substantially meet their requirements.

Ugh.  A technology purchase over $100 should involve consideration of whether there was an existing public tool that could do the job – this should always be the case, not just for obscenely costly jobs.

Labour would also create a government “app store” to provide “a short circuit for fledgling NZ software developers to get to market” which would allow local developers to submit software for purchase by government agencies. Labour promises to ensure “informed neutrality” in software purchasing with due consideration of open-source software.

I really don’t understand what this is trying to achieve.  There’s no indication that local developers would be preferred (only, with no reasoning, open-source software), so how does this help local developers?  This sounds like a way to spend a lot of money for very little gain.

What they are missing are the most important “open”s: open standards (and open formats) and open data.

Governments should only be using software that produces and accepts files that are in formats that are open standards (this includes Microsoft Office documents).  We do have a “New Zealand official interoperability framework definition” already, but it could be significantly expanded on (see what other governments require, for example).  Everything the government produces should be in some sort of open format and everywhere the government accepts data at least one open format should be accepted.  Open standards apply to other areas too, but open formats is the key in “ICT”.

We have a limited commitment to open data already (see data.govt.nz).  This should be significantly expanded on – every data set that the government creates (and there are a huge number of these) should be publicly available, so that (a) we have transparency, and (b) other researchers can benefit from the data.  The only limitation is privacy – unfortunately even when a data set appears to be anonymous it is often possible to identify individuals – it would be worth spending money on figuring out how to get past this so that we can share just about everything without breaching individual people’s privacy.

Bad Analogies

NetHui 2011 is currently in progress, so there’s a lot of discussion about Internet usage in New Zealand, and – of course – the controversial amendments to the Copyright Act.  TUANZ‘s Paul Brislen tweeted something I’ve seen and heard (in various forms) a lot recently:

Cf electricity. Won’t cut me off because I look at something I shouldn’t on my PC so why is it ok to cut off my Comms if I do? #nethui

Variations of this substitute other tools for electricity, and the analogy is generally used to say that the amendment (which allows a District Court to order an ISP to suspend the account of a user) goes further than other laws, which don’t take away the tools you used to break the law when you are convicted.  This is true in some cases – if I hit someone with a bat, I get to keep the bat and my right to use it, if I use lockpicks to break into someone’s home, I get to keep the lockpicks and my right to (legally) use them.  However, it’s not always true.  I believe if I use a gun to kill someone, I (permanently?) lose my right to a gun license, and I think that I also lose the gun.  To use an analogy that’s more likely to be something people have experience with, if I break the law while driving a court may temporarily suspend my right to drive, and I may also have my car impounded.  I pointed this flaw out to Paul, who responded:

cars are not a utility. Banning you from all transport is a better analogy for my analogy.

[…] it’s not your acc that’s banned, it’s you. Unenforceable.

This demonstrates my point about analogies being a flawed way to educate people about issues with changes to the law.  I am not a lawyer, but I am fairly certain that Paul is wrong, has been swayed into believing this by the analogy, and is making others believe this by repeating it.  The amendment states (Section 122O (1)):

A District Court may, on application by a copyright owner, make an order requiring an ISP to suspend the account of an account holder for a period of up to 6 months (emphasis mine)

You don’t lose the right to use transport – you lose the right to drive a car.  You can still use a friend’s car (Internet connection), or public transport (public Internet access is available at our wonderful public libraries).  I believe the transport analogy is significantly better than (e.g.) electricity, because of this similarity, and because the punishment must be enacted by a District Court, is limited term, and comes into effect only when the crime is significant enough or repeated enough to be warranted.  However, there are still areas in which it doesn’t work as an analogy – for example, I don’t lose the right to drive if I use my car as a getaway vehicle in a bank heist (although neither do I lose my Internet access if I rob a bank with it).

The problem here is in using analogies at all.  No matter how carefully you select the “lie-to-children“,  the analogy will be an imperfect match and will lead to people forming opinions based on an erroneous understanding of the facts.  The original furor over the S92A amendment was full of these – the amendment had plenty of problems, but most of the uproar was based on misunderstanding and propaganda.

I’m not saying that including the ability for a court to suspend an Internet account is a worthwhile part of the law: as Paul himself said, it’s useless (I’d say weak rather than useless) because it’s so easy to replace the account with another, and I feel it’s too specific (in much the same way as specifying talking on a phone while driving as illegal is too specific) to be enshrined in law, and there’s no evidence that copyright needs to be protected in this way as opposed to other crime (e.g. one does not lose Internet access for viewing child pornography, unless that happens to be a copyright violation).  What I am saying is that I’d like to see some informed debate about these changes to the law.

Paul’s right when he says that the law is complicated and hard for many to understand.  I thoroughly agree with his point that using examples and “what if” scenarios are a good way to help people understand.  However, I think it’s dangerous to let a lie-to-children carry on too far.  Eventually the children need to grow up and learn the truth (as we understand it), and when it comes to making laws, understanding the truth is essential.  You can’t fit an example into a soundbite, but you can give an easy-to-understand example of how suspension will (if this part of the Act is ever ‘turned on’) work in practice.  For example:

John downloads episodes of Outrageous Fortune illegally.  The owner of that content detects this, and informs John’s ISP, who gives John a warning.  John continues to download this material, and after a month the content owner again informs John’s ISP, who again warns John.  John still ignores the warnings, and continues to download the material.  A month later the content owner informs the ISP yet again, who again notifies John.  The content owner then applies to the District Court to have John’s account with his ISP suspended.  John admits to the Court that he is guilty, and the Court considers his specific circumstances and orders his ISP to suspend his account for a three-month period.

This example leaves out a lot of detail (e.g. the official names for each warning, the minimum and maximum periods between each notice, exactly what the court needs to consider, any action taken by the Tribunal, what happens if John denies the allegations, and more), but I don’t believe it contains any errors, and I do believe that it’s simple enough for anyone to understand what would actually happen in practice.  It doesn’t fit in a tweet, and it takes a minute or two more to express than an analogy, but isn’t informed debate about the laws of our country worth the extra time?

Why “3 tries and you’re locked” *weakens* security

Some organisations have a security policy that after three failed authentication attempts an account is locked (requiring manual unlocking by an IT support person) – the goal is to strengthen security, but this actually decreases the security of the organisation. Continue reading

Why the Government should ignore the People

The infamous “Section 92A” that so riled people up, was this (in full):

92A Internet service provider must have policy for terminating accounts of repeat infringers

(1) An Internet service provider must adopt and reasonably implement a policy that provides for termination, in appropriate circumstances, of the account with that Internet service provider of a repeat infringer.

(2) In subsection (1), repeat infringer means a person who repeatedly infringes the copyright in a work by using 1 or more of the Internet services of the Internet service provider to do a restricted act without the consent of the copyright owner.

This is entirely reasonable.  All it says is that there has to be a policy – it says nothing about the policy other than it must be ‘reasonably implemented’ (where the court gets to decide what is “reasonable”), and that there has to be some way to get to termination of an account in repeat infringement cases.

Despite what huge numbers of people claimed: there is no “guilt on accusation” here and there is no “3 strikes” here. However, through the bad reporting that is unfortunately common now, that’s what people believed, and they made a huge fuss about it, and the Government cravenly caved in to pressure from “the People” and have come up with a new version.  I can’t post the full text of the new version here, because it’s 18 sections long.

With S92A, it was up to the ISPs (or “IPAP”s) to decide what a suitable policy was.  Given that writing policy is hard work, it’s likely that there would end up being a fairly boilerplate policy adopted by most ISPs, but there was no requirement for a central policy.  A “reasonable” policy could be that (a) the rights holder must have proved in court or through the Tribunal that an infringement took place, and (b) the termination would be for no more than one day per infringement (recall that file sharing may involve hundreds of infringements in a single case).  Probably the major ISPs would have had something closer to what’s now law, with a system of warnings and notices and probation periods, but it would be up to the ISP and if the consumers cared, then they could chose based on this policy.  Certainly the policy could “reasonably” have required more than 3 infringements.

Importantly, if the policy needed adjustment (perhaps to limit the number of infringement notices from a single rights holder to counter blanket accusations), that would be something that the ISP could decide to do and implement at any time.  What we have now instead is a policy that’s enshrined in law, so the Government needs to pass an amendment to change anything (and given the ruckus each time this is touched, that seems unlikely).

The irony here is that if “the People” had just (a) read the original version, and (b) shut up about it, or if the Government had ignored the People, we would have had a much simpler and more flexible law that most people would probably have been happier with.  (There are other changes in the Amendment, like the definition of an ISP/IPAP, that are genuinely superior – I’m referring only to the infringement policy).

Instead, we now do have a “3 strikes” law (but it’s not “guilt on accusation”).  However, if you actually bother to take the time to read it, it’s really not that bad (unless you’re guilty of illegal file-sharing, of course.  In that case you need to (a) campaign for copyright reform if you honestly believe that it should be legal, and (b) stop breaking the law).  I much prefer the old version where the policy wasn’t in law, but since “the People” more-or-less killed that possibility, this is probably as good as we’ll get.  Note how many hoops have to be jumped through in order to get a 6-month account suspension – it’s really not going to be that common.

(Note, too, that there’s nothing preventing you from opening an account with another provider (assuming they’ll have you, and probably they won’t care).  This is unlike (e.g.) driving-related cases where you are forbidden to drive at all for a period of time.  Imagine if someone convicted of a DUI wasn’t allowed to drive that vehicle for 6 months, but could drive anything else!).

I can see two potential problems with the Amendment, both unfortunately reasonably likely.

  1. Because this is an election year and because people don’t understand what they are riled up about, the Amendment gets overturned (or amended again) in a year or so – we need some stability here, even if the law isn’t perfect.  Perhaps then the people that work on this stuff could start figuring out the copyright issue in more totality and leave file-sharing alone.  (i.e. how long should copyright last? should computer code be copyrightable? should we get rid of copyright altogether?)
  2. The courts get convinced that penalties should be foolishly high (there are plenty of US cases that could be used as examples here).  For example, if the work is a song, and there is evidence that 1,000 people gained access to that song through the infringer, then the absolute maximum penalty should be $2390 ($2.39 to buy the song from iTunes x1000).  In nearly all cases it should be considerably less, because (a) not all of the 1,000 people would have purchased the song (so the damages do not apply), (b) the cost of the song is often much less, and (c) the sharing may have increased sales in some cases (evidence of this should be provided).  It would be much better if the law restricted the fine to something that reflected damages (i.e. no punitive fines).  I’m hopeful that this won’t happen – if you look at judgements in New Zealand most often the punishment is far less than what “reasonable people” could consider merited – so if anything we may get the opposite effect, where the fines are extremely minimal.

(I do absolutely agree that passing the Amendment under an urgency created to deal with the earthquake is extremely inappropriate.  My guess is that there was room to put it in, so they wanted it out of the way (particularly as far before the election as possible).  More care should be taken by the Government about what gets dealt with under urgency – this is hardly the first inappropriate example).

An actual problem with the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill

The most glaringly wrong part of the Amendment is this:

122PB Application of section 122C to cellular mobile networks

(1) An IPAP need not comply with either of the obligations in section 122C(1) in respect of the services it provides by way of a cellular mobile network.

(2) Subsection (1) is repealed with the close of 31 July 2013 (but see subsection (3)(c)).

(3) The Governor-General may, by Order in Council made on the recommendation of the Minister, do all or any of the following:

(a) repeal this section:

(b) repeal subsection (2):

(c) amend subsection (2) by replacing the date specified in that subsection with any other date, whether that date is earlier or later than the one it replaces:

(d) revoke or amend any Order in Council made under this section (the principal order), but only if the repeal, amendment, or revocation effected by the principal order has not taken effect.

(4) The powers in subsection (3) may be exercised more than once.

This makes absolutely no sense.  A rights violation doesn’t change based on the medium used – why should it matter if the Internet access is via cellular data, microwave, satellite, fiber, copper DSL, or copper dial-up?  Even the authors of the Amendment clearly know that it makes no sense, which is why there’s the built-in expiry and ability to remove it at essentially any earlier time (or, crazily, extend it).

Unless the point is to encourage everyone to illegally file-share over cellular data?  Given that the prices are higher, I’m sure the providers would be happy with that…

Guilt if not denied, not guilt on accusation

Once again, many New Zealanders are saying incredibly incorrect things about copyright law – most of them because they are parroting other people in a twisted Chinese whispers style of journalism.  People are calling the latest changes “guilt on accusation”.  All you have to do is actually read the amendment (which is not something that many do) and you can tell that is not the case.

The relevant part of the amendment is this:

122MA Infringement notice as evidence of copyright infringement

(1) In proceedings before the Tribunal, an infringement notice is conclusive evidence of the following:

(a) that each incidence of file sharing identified in the notice constituted an infringement of the right owner’s copyright in the work identified:

(b) that the information recorded in the infringement notice is correct:

(c) that the infringement notice was issued in accordance with this Act.

(2) An account holder may submit evidence, or give reasons, that show that any 1 or more of the presumptions in subsection (1) do not apply with respect to any particular infringement identified in an infringement notice.

(3) If an account holder submits evidence or gives reasons as referred to in subsection (2), the rights owner must satisfy the Tribunal that the particular presumption or presumptions are correct.

What this says is that if you are accused and you do not deny the accusation then the tribunal does not need to consider additional evidence – they can get on with the rest of their work.  As soon as you say “no, this wasn’t a rights violation”, or “there’s a mistake here”, or “this notice wasn’t in the right form”, the burden is explicitly on the rights holder to prove guilt.  In case this is “TL;DR”, it’s the final words: “the rights owner must satisfy the Tribunal that the particular presumption or presumptions are correct.

This is doesn’t mean you are guilty until proven innocent – this means that if you can’t be bothered denying the accusation, then the Tribunal doesn’t have to waste a lot of time looking at evidence.  If you’re innocent, all you need to do is point that out, and you are presumed to be correct until proven otherwise.

Latest MySky (HDi) update

The latest (and heavily publicised) MySKY (HDi only?) update was released today.  Oddly, our update was applied around 2 p.m. – the currently showing program was replaced by a very ugly notice that the system was being updated.  I can’t understand why the update wasn’t deployed during the night (e.g. 4 a.m.), when the number of viewers must be significantly lower.  What if I had really cared about the program that was showing?

My initial reaction was very negative.  After it was pointed out (via Twitter) that many of SkyTV’s mistakes are correctable via new options in the settings back, I’m slightly less negative, but it’s still not an improvement.  This is especially frustrating considering that the UI is so terrible, and has been ever since MySKY was introduced about five years ago (I’ve had MySKY since just after the launch).  Being told that they know about the many problems and fixing them isn’t possible until the hardware is revved doesn’t inspire any confidence at all, since the problems existed with the original MySKY and certainly were not fixed when the hardware was revved (with HDi).  Someone at SkyTV is responsible for selecting the hardware – if the platform doesn’t support creating a decent UI, then they should choose something else.

(Has anyone on the MySKY team used an Apple product?  Or even Windows 7 or a Zune product?  Would they recognise good UI when they saw it?  Do they have anyone that has any UI talent or experience?  If so, perhaps they could give that person a bit of power to fix things?)

The “what’s new” page has a feedback form where you can comment on the recent changes.  I encourage you to do so.  My comments were:

Planner Search

Sorting by time is a pointless way to organise the planner – it caters to people that don’t understand how to use a DVR properly (e.g. who are using it like they would have used a VCR). Sorting by A-Z is vastly more useful, because the typical planner task is either finding a specific program to watch (I always know the first letter of the name, I rarely know or care when it was broadcast/recorded), or browsing through programs to find something to watch (I don’t care what’s oldest/newest, I care what the program is).

The changes in this update make things worse in this respect. Although it’s possible to turn off the video and set the “search” interface to A-Z sort by default, you’re then in an interface where you have to go right/left to get to delete/keep. The planner should default to A-Z search, or at least have that as an option.

Confirm Delete

Although it’s fantastic that after 5 years the “tiny button right next to ‘don’t delete this’ deletes irrevocably” problem has been addressed, a confirmation dialog is (although common) generally the wrong UI decision to make. Users (a) get into habits of just ok’ing such dialogs, decreasing their value, and (b) are less willing to try things out. It is almost always better (and certainly would be here) to simply make any action reversible (i.e. have an undo delete).

Preview

The preview in search seems completely pointless. I almost certainly know what the program is based on the title, and if I don’t, then starting to show the program isn’t going to help. This is exacerbated by the fact that with the “automatic” buffer setting the preview generally starts with the end of the program that was on before the program that you’re looking at.

It *would* be useful to have an episode name & number (where applicable) in the main planner screen (e.g. to distinguish between several episodes of a kid’s program that is played out-of-order), or to only show each series once (and selecting it goes into a submenu where specific episodes can be selected; this is common in other interfaces where screen space is limited). Showing the synopsis in search helps with this, but takes up a vast amount of space (only five rows of text – even on a huge screen!), and comes with the annoying and loud video.

Positive

After five years, the guide finally shows an indication of which programs are scheduled to be recorded.  This feature was present in the old Sky Digital system (which didn’t record, but did allow you to schedule reminders), and it’s amazing that it’s taken this long to restore it.  However, it ignores series-link, so it only highlights the next episode.  It would be nice to get the feature right.

Dr? No.

I finally withdrew from my PhD today (probably many people thought that this had happened some time ago).

In the beginning…

The story really starts in 1999.  I started working consistently while studying, and also got rather bored with the study that I was doing.  I also got involved in the Students’ Association – first lightly, then pretty heavily.  As a result, at the end of 2000, I was about 1.5 papers short of finishing my BSc and BBS.  I needed to do half a semester of work, and so I decided to go those at the same time as a Postgraduate Diploma in Science (these went along with running for ASA President).  The ASA job didn’t work out, but I did finish the last undergrad stuff I needed to do, and rather unexpectedly found that I really enjoyed the postgrad study.

I was able to do all the papers for the postgrad diploma along with the undergrad work, except for the double-paper research project, in that year.  That meant that the next year started off with finishing off the research project – normally half of a semester’s load, but since I didn’t have anything else to be doing, I poured in a whole semester’s effort into it.  That left me at the middle of the year with everything complete.

To be Dr T…

At this point, I was offered a $20k scholarship to do a PhD at Massey.  A lot of thought went into this at the time – including a lot of talking with Olyvia (this was not that long before we got engaged).  It was clearly going to be financially terrible for three years, but money has never been my focus.  On the positive side, I was assured (and believed) that there was quite a lot of demand for lecturers, and I had found that I really enjoyed teaching, research, and administration, which are basically the three components of a (NZ) lecturing position.  It seemed at the time like it was a good career choice (especially the flexibility that it offered), and so I took up the choice.

I chose to continue on with the work that I’d done for my research project (what I ended up calling synthetic actors).  There were a lot of reasons that this was a good choice – it was AI, which I particularly enjoyed, it involved theatre, which I was spending a lot of time doing, and it was a very clear field (i.e. few other researchers in the area).

Early errors…

In retrospect, both of these were poor choices.  I should never have enrolled with Massey to do a PhD.  The Computer Science department at Albany is just a poor relation of the strong Maths/Statistics department, and so it’s not really a good choice, even though at the time (and possibly now) they had some really good staff.  I should have gone somewhere where Computer Science was a department with real funding and support, and where I could potentially have got some work once I was done.

Although synthetic actors were fascinating and I got the work done (other than a bit of writing) in the end, it was a bad choice.  For a start, a topic like this, which bridges disciplines, needs to be done somewhere where there is more history of cross-discipline study.  To do a topic like this I should also have been somewhere that had a strong theatrical department (i.e. I really needed to be in Wellington).  It’s really very important to pick a topic that matches the institution (or an institution that matches the topic).

The other problem with the topic, exacerbated by doing it at Massey, where there’s no history of this type of research, is that it is really hard to measure.  Computer science is really a lot like mathematics and statistics in that what you’re typically after is something that you can do and collect numbers and then have some sort of graph that shows that things are improved.  A semi-art topic like synthetic actors doesn’t suit that well at all.  I ended up finding things to measure, but that did mean that a lot of the effort that the project needed (e.g. putting on the two productions) wasn’t central to the real research.

Somewhat ironically, a much more suitable topic was at hand a little later.  I started working on SpamBayes, and a computer science/statistics project would have been a great fit with Massey and also very measurable.  It would also have been much more translatable into work (in fact, my work on the project, outside of the PhD work, has contributed much more).

Good times…

Despite these two things, everything went pretty well for the first 2.5 years.  Money, as expected, was pretty tight – $20k is not a lot, especially with a wedding and living a ‘grown up’ life (i.e. not poor student flatting or living at home with parents).  In fact, our rent was about $20k at this time.  This meant that I had to work a lot as well as study full time, but even though I had little spare time, I was enjoying both, so it seemed ok.  The English department at Massey was hugely helpful here, because they paid me decent wages to teach a paper each semester (whereas in Computer Science you got less than working at a service station).

Towards the end of the three-year period, everything was basically on track.  I had about a third to a half of my thesis complete (about half of this was later rewritten from scratch) with about 6 months to go.  My plan was that I would spend a reasonable amount of time time looking for (lecturing) work to move into as I finished up the thesis – I even gave up the lucrative English teaching in order to do this.

Stalling…

This is where everything stalled.  I vastly underestimated how difficult finding lecturing work would be (and how unhelpful and insulting Massey would be).  With a couple of months of stipend to go, I disparately needed to find work (Olyvia wasn’t working at this time either, so the need was particularly urgent).  Although there wasn’t any lecturing work to be found (or at least, anyone interested in me), there was a lot of other work.

In particular, SpamExperts approached me about doing a short project (nearly 5 years later, I’m still working for them!), Lifeway College approached me about teaching a module (in Business Modelling with Spreadsheets, of all things), and Northtec (indirectly) approached me about filling in for a few weeks (I’m still doing this – and another paper – too) for a programming paper.

All of this was enough to pay the bills, but combined with still looking for lecturing work, left me no time to actually finish off the thesis.  The two teaching jobs in particular (which I valued a lot because they seemed like good experience for lecturing work) required me to create the courses from scratch (and I had to learn Business Modelling, since I had no prior knowledge).  Several months passed without any thesis work getting done.

This was really my biggest error – underestimating how difficult it would be to get work afterwards.  I should have come up with some plan that wouldn’t have resulting in losing the last (essential) few months of full-time study that I had.  I’m not sure what that plan would have been, but it was what was missing.

Stuck…

The plan around this time was that we’d have our first child during the next year – we didn’t want to be old parents (and if we have two children want to have a break between them), and it seemed like a good time (with me going into the real work force and so on).  Samuel came along very quickly (planning’s fine, but there’s still some luck involved) – I rather naively assumed that finishing the PhD and working would fit into the pregnancy year without any problem (after all, it was Olyvia that was pregnant, not me, right?).

I probably could have managed to get work done during that time.  However, I was enjoying a break of just normal working life, I was working a lot of hours (I had many jobs, but all were – in theory – temporary, so I was scared that they’d end and I’d have nothing, so I needed savings).  Finally, supporting Olyvia during the pregnancy took a lot more time that I expected, with antenatal classes, midwife visits, scans, shopping, and so forth.  I could have skipped this, of course, but they took priority for me over the PhD.

Limbo #1

Once Samuel really arrived (28/8/6), there really was no time to spare.  The first year, in particular, was quite tricky, and I spent all my time parenting and working.  If I had put thesis work into the mix, I would have produced rubbish or would have burnt out.  A year or so later, things did start to quieten down a bit, but I was in an odd limbo where I had had such a long break that I wasn’t sure where I was.

Going back to the work after a long break was difficult, and since I’d used up the 4 years I was meant to have, I wasn’t sure whether the work would be accepted anyway.  Massey was extremely unhelpful here (not my supervisor – he was great), in that I was continually asking for time and never hearing about whether I was granted it or not – the only time I heard from them was the ridiculous requests for 6-monthly reports and queries about when it would be done.

(The reports infuriate me.  In theory, they’re meant to track how people are going.  However, I submitted years of reports saying “I failed to get anything done”, and nothing came of them.  So obviously they are ignored, and are pointless.  I could have spent the time actually getting work done instead).

I had about a year of this limbo.  This was the second big mistake, really.  I could have managed to get the work complete during this time – I was busy with work and parenting, sure, but there was also a bit of time here and there where I could have knuckled down and got the work done without going crazy.  The PhD seemed very distant and less and less important as time progressed and so motivation was very difficult.

Nearly unbelievably, progress again…

About 18 months ago, the limbo finally ended.  I finally got some clear answers (thanks to my supervisor I believe) from Massey about whether I was able to continue working on it or not.  The original plan was to finish the thesis (other than some editing) by the end of 2008.  I made a private plan with my supervisor to get a certain number of words done every week (emailing fresh copies weekly) and if I failed to get that done any week, I’d withdraw.  I worked very hard at this, and although it was tricky, I did manage to meet each deadline.

At the end of the year, I was a little short (about 1.5 chapters and a bit of tidying up), although I’d done more editing than originally planned.  Limbo came back.  Eventually (some time in early 2009) I did hear that I had an official (after years!) extension until 29/11/09.  This was clearly enough time, at least in theory.

Limbo #2

However, the last 12 months have been a disaster for me personally.  2009, without doubt, has been the worst year of my life so far (hopefully, ever).  I had no idea that things could go so badly.  The details don’t really belong here, but I honestly don’t believe that I had any chance to get the work done (to an acceptable standard) this year.  I really needed to get it done the previous year (when in honesty I should have been able to find time) – there was just no way I could work on it this year.

The end

Supposedly Massey have been trying to talk to me about the status recently (I don’t know for how long) and haven’t been able to get hold of me.  I find this difficult to believe considering how easily an email address for me (or even this blog!) can be found via Google.  Olyvia got a message on the phone today querying the status (predictable given that the deadline is 9 days away), and I sent the IIMS HoD a message indicating that I was withdrawing (in reality, there’s no choice – and if I’d known what the year would be like, I would have just done that a year ago).

Retrospective thoughts

This is obviously disappointing.  The PhD was the biggest project I’d worked on at the time, and I poured a lot of time, money, and effort into it.  It’s also nearly done – I have tens of thousands of words of a thesis complete.  It’s frustrating quitting something when it’s so close to completion.

I’ve also always been mindful of the support that others gave me, particularly in those first three (productive, active) years.  Olyvia, Mum and Dad, Jacs, Jo, Geoff and the other MADSODS, Chris, Jenny, and so forth.  It always seemed like I owed it to them to complete the damn thing as well.

However, it has been hanging on my neck like the proverbial millstone for years now.  Few days go by without at least one guilty stressful thought about how I haven’t done anything towards it that day.  It will be nice to leave that behind.

In reality, there’s no practical benefit to getting the PhD.  I long since lost any desire to work in academia (thanks, Massey!), and even if I got the PhD, I’ve spent too many years without getting anything published to be a strong candidate for any job (I was a stronger candidate, in many ways, back when I failed to find lecturing work years ago).  In NZ, which is where I want to continue working, there’s little career value to a PhD outside of academia.  I still have plenty of work (although the exchange rate is hurting a lot) and I’m certain that I could find more if I had to (although I’ve clearly been wrong about that before!).

On the other side of the equation, there are things that really are important to me.  In particular, family.  If given the choice between spending more time with Samuel and writing a thesis that’s only of sentimental worth, I’ll pick Samuel without any regrets.

Looking back, I can see where I made mistakes – the poor topic choice, failing to see how difficult finding work would be, not utilising time in 2007/8.  However, I don’t regret any of the decisions I made at the time.  Most of the time, I was choosing things that are still more important to me than the PhD.

To those reading this that did help – thanks.  I really do wholeheartedly appreciate all the support.  Also: my apologies – I’m sorry if I have let you down by not completing everything.  I hope you understand that there are just things that are more important to me (I know some people do, since they’ve said that to me in the past – Dad did this a while ago).

So that’s that.  I’ll probably put the thesis up at some point – maybe another eager kid will want to work with synthetic actors (despite Claudio giving it up and then me giving it up) and will find it useful.  I might have more thoughts then.  For now, I’m going to go back to things that I care more about.

p.s. Yes, I did partly choose the title of this post to counter the Google juice that the James Bond Tony Meyer seems to have.

Google Voice? Who really cares?

I really enjoy listening to Jason Calacanis when he’s on TWiT, and I think he generally makes a lot of sense (and considering his success, he clearly knows more than me).  However, his anti-Apple rant (like so many others) is really off-base (I’m not the only one that thinks so).

There is no technical reason why the iTunes ecosystem shouldn’t allow the ability to sync with any MP3 player

The iTunes ecosystem does allow the ability to sync with any MP3 player (even more so now that music is DRM-free).  You can build an application that uses the XML library description that iTunes creates to figure out where all the music/video is, and do what you like with it.  The way I see it, there’s no reason that iTunes/Apple should be forced to support any MP3 player with their software.  Apple clearly makes some money from the iTunes music/video sales, but it’s clearly not the main profit generator is the ecosystem – the high-margin iPods/iPhones are.  Apple has spent a great deal of time and money building a store and an application to make the players more appealing.  Why should any other player get to piggyback on the top of that?  If (e.g.) Palm wants to create an online music store and develop an application that works with it and the Pre, then they should be able to (and I see no reason they can’t).

I like iTunes more than other media applications I’ve used, but it’s certainly not perfect, and it shows that it started out as a music player and is now a great deal more.  I love the iTunes Store, but Amazon completes with it (I can’t tell how well, since they won’t see to me in NZ) as does the Zune Store – which even offers a subscription model (no idea if this is available in NZ – it’s too Windows-centric for me).  There’s absolutely room for someone (e.g. Palm) to build a better store (or interface with an existing one like Amazon) and built a better application.  Do that, and build a better device, and you’ll get customers.  Don’t expect that Apple should have to help you compete against them.

Think for a moment about what your reaction would be if Microsoft made the Zune the only MP3 player compatible with Windows.

The iPod/iPhone isn’t the only MP3 player compatible with OS X.  However, isn’t the Zune is the only MP3 player compatible with the Zune store?  The “PlaysForSure” idea got thrown out some time ago.

Simple solution and opportunity: Not only let the iPhone work on any carrier,

How many countries is the iPhone locked in?  It certainly isn’t locked here, or in many other countries (e.g. Australia).  This is only an issue in some countries, like the U.S. – it’s a U.S. Apple problem, not an Apple problem.  From what I understand, it makes business sense for Apple to have an exclusivity deal with AT&T, at least for now.  I don’t see anything wrong with that.  If AT&T was bad enough, then people wouldn’t use it, even if it was the only iPhone choice.  If other companies made phones good enough on other carriers, then it wouldn’t matter which network the iPhone was with.  I presume this is a temporary issue and the U.S. will join the other enlightened countries before long and have unlocked phones, anyway.

but put *two* SIM card slots on the iPhone

A nice idea in some ways, but about as un-Apple as you can get.

3. Draconian App Store policies that are, frankly, insulting

This is actually points 3, 4 and 5.

Yes, every application on the phone has to approved by Apple, and if you were interested in something adult in nature…well…you can’t do that.

From all accounts, the approval process needs a lot of work.  One suspects that now that Jobs is officially returned to work (and Schiller is speaking openly about at least some things) that changes will happen before too long.  I think Apple must surely realise that the situation is getting out of control, and will start implementing changes.  For now, there are still a lot of applications that I really love, there are none that I know of (which is an issue, of course) that I wish I had, and only one that has been pulled that I love (which is Amazon’s fault, not Apple’s).  I’m willing to give Apple a bit more time to fix this – I suspect that even they didn’t realise quite how successful this would be.

4. Being a horrible hypocrite by banning other browsers on the iPhone

Again, this is really just a specific case of #3.  Personally, I see almost no demand for Opera anywhere apart from by a few (very extreme) fans.  I don’t even see much desire for Firefox or Chrome on the iPhone.

5. Blocking the Google Voice Application on the iPhone

There’s a lot of talk about this.  It seems overblown to me, considering that Google Voice isn’t even publicly available (I believe it’s an invite-only beta) and is U.S.-only.  I think it’s just that a lot of the noisy tech pundits use Google Voice, and so this impacts them directly.  I think there are much worse cases of App Store approval problems.  In any case, this is again just another instance of #3.

Making great products does not absolve you from technology’s cardinal rule: Don’t be evil.

It seems to me that the cardinal rule is more “make great stuff”.  I’ll still buy from Amazon, even after they killed my favourite iPhone application.  I dislike some of how Apple handles App Store submission, but I’ll still buy various products from them.  I dislike DRM in general, but the iTunes Store is good enough that it’s still worth using.

1. Do you think Apple would be more, or less, successful if they adopted a more open strategy (i.e. allowing other MP3 players in iTunes)?

Less.  A huge part of the appeal of the Apple ‘ecosystem’ is that because they control all parts, everything “just works”.  If you use all-Apple products, everything works so much nicer than if you mix-and-match.

2. Do you think Apple should face serious antitrust action?

No.

3. Do you think Apple’s dexterity and competence forgive their bad behavior?

Yes.