CeBIT Australia 2008

Array of radiotelescopes in front of a mountain

Every year the CSIRO has a stand at CeBIT Australia. I was there to help, along with my colleagues at the CSIRO ICT Centre. This year we had some really funky technology, like the Colonoscopy Simulator. The goal of the simulator is to combine a photo-realistic visual simulation of a colon with a haptic (physical feedback) colonoscope simulator. At the moment you can thread the snake-like colonoscope through a box and watch the probe on the screen. Touch the colon wall and blood appears. The team is still working on modelling the physical properties so the haptic feedback is not realistic at this stage, but it's still exciting.

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) display featured a program that allows the users to walk or drive their way around a simulation of the proposed Square Kilometre Array site in outback Western Australia. You can download this program for yourself.

Other displays included the Braccetto collaborative technology, autonomous helicopters and hot metal carriers, sensors for monitoring rivers, farms and prawn feeding, techniques for tracking people (I suggested dogs!) when GPS doesn't work, and even the first (to my knowledge) Mac fridge – using smart agents in electricity networks. I was very amused when a couple of promotions girls came up to chat with the guy manning our W3C display (the ICT Centre hosts the Australian W3C office). I had been asked if I could think of a way to make web standards sexy. Looks like they didn't need my help!

I also spent time wandering around CeBIT. Our competitors and collaborators NICTA had an interesting demonstration of their Universal Storage Scheme which enabled them to compress 18GB of Wikipedia data into a fully searchable 3GBs. They demonstrated accessing this compressed data through Internet Explorer on a Windows mobile phone and it was very fast.

I stopped by at the Open Source area and talked to the folk associated with the Drupal content management system, which is what this site runs on. Much of what we chatted about was unrelated to Drupal.

Despite our function as a research organisation there is what I see is an unhealthy fixation on reputations built through business over research at CSIRO and the ICT Centre in particular. This was brought home to me by the discussion I had at the Drupal booth. They had a lot of respect for one of our former employees through her papers and presentations at conferences, describing her as a heavy hitter in a field where there are many big names. Yet there is a feeling that she was encouraged to leave because her focus was on open standards rather than commercialising technologies, especially with the big corporations. If you want to be a player in the ICT industry you need to be respected and respect doesn't just come through selling off your knowledge to big-name multinationals.

Other open source content management systems were represented at CeBIT. I listened and participated in a Q&A session with representatives from Drupal, Joomla and Zope/Plone. It was good to hear how far they have come, especially as it is time to evaluate content management systems again. I'm especially looking forward to investigating new developments in Zope/Plone. 

By the end of the day my feet were sore from standing so long, but it really was a worthwhile experience. So much so that I'm going back to help again tomorrow!

Dog Dreams

Array of radiotelescopes in front of a mountain

The face of a dog haunted my thoughts today. I dreamed of him last night. It was Fluffy, a dog that once lived, almost a decade ago now, at my in-laws, a shih-tzu cross that was found wandering around their post office. They brought him home, called him Benji. To me he was Fluffy, with his thick white coat. 

Fluffy was a good natured dog, but he had a couple of problems. He couldn't control his bowels when he got excited. In the car, in the bath he'd pop out some brown stuff. It stuck to his coat and we would have to cut the smelly matted hair off. He also developed a skin problem, probably an allergy to something in the yard, which lead to his skin turning red and much of his hair falling out. The vet's cortisone injections helped, but he needed better care. 

One day, while B and I were away on holidays, he escaped from the yard (not for the first time) and was taken to the pound. The family decided that they couldn't look after him any longer. I hope he found a good home and someone to love him, but I fear that, with his poor condition. he may have been put to sleep. I only hope that the pound was true to it's "no killing" policy.

Last night in my dream I was playing with our dog Kita. There was a line of soft toys in the room with a dog sitting there staring at me. I looked again and it was Fluffy. As I saw him I realised that he had been there for at least three days straight and I had just ignored him, spending all my time with Kita. I hadn't fed or played with Fluffy in all that time. He didn't bark, didn't cry, just stared with at me wanting love. I felt so horribly guilty. Then the alarm woke me up. but I couldn't get his face out of my mind.

It's not the first time I have dreamed of abandoned pets. I have had a few dreams where I rediscover long forgotten and neglected aquariums, although their occupants are still happily alive (and let's face it, fish don't need to be loved, just looked after). I have long kept fish, with varying degrees of success, but I haven't had much luck with dogs.

Kita is actually the first dog I have ever owned for myself and I like to think that he is very well cared for. Certainly, he is well loved and he has responded by being extraordinarily well behaved. We did look for a breed that was likely to suit us and it shows.

Unfortunately, the other dogs I have been associated with were generally not so well chosen. There was my parent's dog Sam from prior to my birth. He bit me and had to be put to sleep, a herding dog unable to cope with suburban life. Sox, a corgie, run over outside of our house. My brother David kept convincing my parents to buy him dogs that didn't work out with our unfenced land. He never took enough responsibility for looking after them, the task often falling reluctantly to me. Sandy kept escaping and was destructive and ended up being taken away. Snoopy, a Rhodesian Ridgeback cross, also had to be given away, after I moved away to university. But I will never forget the night shortly before I left, when the caravan I slept in was being shaken by 90 km/h wind gusts. Big Snoopy was frightened and I let him inside. We lay there on the bed with his head on chest. I was very sad to hear that he was gone.

Finally, the bad luck was broken when my family stopped giving their dogs names beginning with 'S'. I remember pulling up in the train at Rockhampton's station on my first trip back from uni. David had a puppy in his arms, a female german shepherd dog called Tiffany. Tiffany was a wonderful dog, loyal to my Mum, almost never wandering off (except when influenced by one of her puppies from a local dog). She absolutely loved the water and would stand in a puddle if she saw one. Her only problems were losing her teeth from chewing stones and a fear of storms (she tore a hole in the back door). I loved visiting Tiffany and was very sad when she died of old age in 2005.

Meanwhile I had moved to Sydney and in with my future in-laws. They had two dogs, Fluffy and Bobby. Bobby was a tiny Australian Silky Terrier with a bad attitude and bad teeth. Despite having his balls removed he was still a highly dominant dog who would growl and attack if you moved him on the bed or competed with him for the heater. He was very loyal and I recall the day that he came straight over to comfort me when I injured my ankle. One night he was cold and shaking. We took him to the vet, who diagnosed blood poisoning from an infection. Despite blood transfusions he died a couple of days later at the vet's clinic while we were on the way back from the city to see him.

To keep Bobby company after Fluffy went away my brother-in-law bought another dog, a female cavalier king charles named Meiji (yes, a guy's name). She is a fantastic and intelligent dog who still lives with them, now joined by a male cavalier called Monty, sweet natured but a little dull. We chose Monty for Michael, or actually Monty chose us at the breeders.

But we no longer live at the in-laws. We wanted a dog, but we wanted a good dog, a dog that we could look after until the day it dies. A dog we would hopefully never have to give away. We wanted to do it right this time. We had given up when we saw Kita in a pet store, a happy accident. So far we have no regrets. He is everything we wanted and I hope that he is as happy as we think he is because he deserves it. All dogs deserve love and happiness. I hope that Fluffy found it, wherever he went.

Fukunosawa – a model railway layout

Array of radiotelescopes in front of a mountain

After almost 33 years I have finally completed* my first model railway layout. It's an N-scale layout based upon a mountain village in the Japanese Alps. It was inspired by a rail journey between Nagoya and Toyama via Takayama through gorgeous mountain scenery, from along the Hida river, past cherry blossoms and up into the snow of the mountains.

I was given a train set for my first birthday, a high quality Märklin set that I still own. I was too young for it, of course. Since then I've set up various layouts, but none has been of a permanent nature.

On our third trip to Japan I purchased some relatively cheap N-scale trains as a souvenir. On subsequent visits I built up the collection further. I bought scenery, buildings, started painting some, made a tiny toy layout to test out some ideas and lay a large elevated track loop around my desk at home for the shinkansen and Narita Express sets. But a proper layout just wasn't progressing.

Then I watched Spirited Away again, and realising that I couldn't visit Japan in the near future, was motivated to put one of my planned layouts together so that I could bring a little piece of Japan to me.

I already had an MDF board cut to size. On top of this I laid some thick sheets of polystyrene that I had kept from furniture packaging, just for this purpose. I cut a shape of a river into the polystyrene, down to the wood and used PVC glue to stick smaller chunks elsewhere to act as hills. I coated these chunks and the cliff walls with Selleys gap filler. The other flat areas I covered with a sheet of thin cardboard. The water in the river was a sheet of plastic "lake water" (Noch scenics, I think).

The white "snow" is just white paint, the green is grass matting. I used a stick on road. I am most pleased with the cherry blossom trees, which I bought in Japan. The name Fukunosawa just comes from one of the stickers that was included with the station platform kit. I don't think that it is a real place.

I was just going for a general impression of reality rather than going to extreme efforts for realism, but I have to say I'm surprised with how good the results look. Now, if only I could go and see the real thing again…

More photos

* Model railway layouts are never really completed. There's always more to do.

Tibet Anger

Array of radiotelescopes in front of a mountain

I'm very angry and severely disappointed at the actions and words of the Chinese in Australia and the rest of the world who wish to crush those who criticise China. It's not that I hate China, because I don't, nor that I think that Tibet should be independent, because that is a complex issue with no simple solution. What I dislike so much is their hypocrisy, their unthinking acceptance of whatever they are told and their racist attitudes. In many ways they remind me a lot of those stupid, racist rioters at Cronulla. They deign to believe they speak for all those of Chinese ancestry and it's their way or the highway.

There is an unwritten law in Australia, in most western countries, that these pro-Chinese have broken. It is this: you may campaign publicly for greater rights, no matter how silly the cause, but not to restrict rights. The reason is because the street marches to restrict people's rights smells of fascism. That is better left for talkback radio. (Of course there are many decisions made by our government to restrict rights, just look at the criminal and security laws).

The pro-China groups do not speak for all Chinese. Chinese people, especially those outside of China, have many beliefs and opinions. I could use my wife as an example. I have often heard China state that Western countries have no right to interfere in their domestic politics, but they seem to have no problem interfering with groups such as the pro-Tibet lobby and the annoying Falun Gong in other countries.

If Chinese or any immigrants are going to live and study in Australia then they have to realise that people have a right to criticise China. They also have a right to provide arguments against those criticisms, but not to harass those they disagree with. Yes, some anti-China arguments have been racist, but criticism of China the country is not automatically racism. I am disappointed with people that campaign for issues based upon their race rather than for all races and people in this multicultural country. 

There is hypocrisy when it comes to China's arguments that Tibet has always been part of China and always should be. Once Tibet actually ruled a fair part of inland China, one of the reasons that there are so many Tibetans in places like Sichuan provence. At various times in their history the Tibetans have relied upon Chinese military support, sometimes accepted limited sovereignty by the Chinese, sometimes not. When the Chinese took military control of Tibet in the 1950's they did eliminate many Tibetan cultural practices that would be abhorrent in the eyes of modern western culture. They modernised the country, built roads and other infrastructure. 

But so did the British in Malaysia, India and many other countries. Would China argue that Britain should still run those countries? After all, there are many examples of locals "inviting" in the British to deal with issues in local politics. Western powers helped the Qing defeat the Taiping rebellion. Or was that "Western Cultural Imperialism"? I have heard that much of the resentment in Tibet stems from Han Chinese lording over local Tibetans, that the Han act as if they are genetically and culturally superior. That is racism.

Random Japanese

Array of radiotelescopes in front of a mountain

Looks like we won't be going to Europe via Korea in September/October. Another trip cancelled/delayed. Another time this year? I wonder. 

After watching Spirited Away I'm in the mood for Japanese. I cooked teriyaki fish and vegetables with a sesame sauce tonight, from one of the cookbooks we brought home from Japan. On the weekend I did some more work on my Japanese model railway layout. But it is not enough.

Drupal, buses pretending to be trains and Japanese food

Array of radiotelescopes in front of a mountain

Bus down the embankment at Epping StationYesterday, instead of my usual two train commute to work I ended up catching four. One to Central, then another to North Strathfield, then all stations to Eastwood and finally a single hop to Epping. Why? Because a bus had run driverless off the road and down the embankment just beyond Epping station. See the mobile phone photo on the right.

A messy start to an otherwise good day that saw me gain satisfaction from programming and cooking Japanese food. It's a cuisine that feels healthy to eat and tastes good too.

I see Drupal are holding an Asia Pacific Conference in conjunction with CeBIT. Not certain if I'll go or not. We have a big stand at CeBIT, but I'm seriously thinking of dropping Drupal for my own CMS. Not sure if the latest versions are supported on this webhost, though I haven't bothered looking yet.

Can't wait for the Easter break. Exhausted for no good reason this week.