Life & much, much more

Edmondson Park – a retail and residential development by Frasers and HDR

Three weeks ago, 30 kilometers away from the Sydney city centre in the rural suburb of Edmondson Park, Frasers Property Australia opened the doors of their display centre to the public. This brand new town centre development with residential and retail environments was designed by HDR Inc, of which I am part of the team of architects. I haven’t really talked much about my architecture work before, but a brand new town centre in a previously uneventful part of Sydney is perhaps worth a blog article.

Perhaps let’s start with the blurb of the development which I’ve copied directly from the Frasers official Ed Square website:

From the makers of Central Park Sydney, Ed.Square brings inner city edge, but with so much more than you expected.

Ed.Square is a diverse urban neighbourhood of restaurants and cafes; shopping and entertainment; playgrounds and parklands; a market place and Eat Street; adjacent to the Edmondson Park train station and all within walking distance from your own front door.

Ed offers an array of residences crafted by some of the worlds best architects that cater for every lifestyle. Whether you are a first home buyer or a multi-generational family, you’ll always feel at home with Ed.

Sydney’s South West is one of Sydney’s growth trajectories, and so the Edmondson Park development is one of those which will supply the population growth.

Despite working on the development, I probably don’t have any permission to use any marketing material, so you’ll have to visit the Frasers website to see all the pretty pictures and marketing.

However, I did take some snaps of the display suite, so here it is! Let’s start with the view you get as you enter. To the left are some display town houses. They are three storey products which surround the town centre. If you use some imagination you can read that there is the huge word “Ed.” written in bright yellow in front of it. Ed’s pretty hip, and is the anthropomorphism of the neighbourhood. To the right, you can see a cafe by the display centre itself, which apparently serves some pretty tasty dishes that the local community loves — but it was closed when I arrived.

Edmondson Park display village centre

Here’s what you see as you enter…

Edmondson Park display suite entrance

And a snap of the physical model…

Edmondson park model

Let’s zoom in! The orange letter “T” is the train station, so you can see that the town centre is literally adjacent to it. The white buildings have yet to be released, so stay tuned.

Henderson Road model shot

Here’s another angle, showing the grand cinema facade.

Edmondson Park cinema

There’s a display apartment too …

Edmondson Park display apartment

… which shows some of the apartment, such as this fancy kitchen.

Kitchen in display apartment

Here’s another view from the balcony of one of the town houses looking at the display suite. In the background you can see a huge pit where construction will occur, surrounded by Cumberland Plain Woodland. I hear there could be koalas living there.

enter image description here

If you live in Sydney, feel free to drop by!

Life & much, much more

OpenStreetMaps – an open-source Maps application

Recently I’ve been interested in an initiative known as OpenStreetMaps. Launched in 2004, OpenStreetMaps is the open-source equivalent of Google Maps, and functions largely like how Wikipedia does (and in fact was inspired by Wikipedia) – it’s a map of the world drawn completely by volunteers and open-source enthusiasts.

OpenStreetMaps world map

You might’ve already seen OSM in action. Below it’s used by default in the privacy-friendly search engine DuckDuckGo, other wiki-based projects like WikiVoyage, and many games use it as a base layer, such as Pokemon Go.

PokemonGo uses OpenStreetMaps as a base layer

You’ve probably used Google Maps before and have it installed on your phone to help you drive to places with the GPS. You may have also played with Bing Maps which essentially does the same thing. At first glance OpenStreetMaps is purely a clone: you can zoom in and out, look at street names and see buildings, and have it tell you how to drive to a destination. It’s not that exciting, and isn’t worth talking about.

However if you were a user of OSM, occasionally you might notice areas of the map where volunteers have gone above and beyond to draw details of the environment that other maps will not. Things like individual driveways, articulated building outlines, kerbside grass, wheelchair accessible walkways and kerb ramps, and individual bush and tree locations, fences, and parking niches. Zooming in we can identify storm drains, streetlamps, water taps and park benches. This level of detail is possible because the map is created by people who are genuinely interested and express a love and care in their work. The example below is in Brisbane, Australia, largely by a fellow called ThorstenE.

OpenStreetMaps example in Brisbane, Australia

Where OSM really excels is as an open-data resource. Usually, you are only limited to raster map images produced by Google Maps and Bing, but aren’t allowed to access the underlying database of geographic and vector information. In contrast, because the data in OSM’s database is free for everyone, specialist maps can easily be created. Take for example the extensive mapping of skiing and snowboarding tracks in Oslo, Norway provided by OpenSnowMap

OpenSnowMaps

… alternatively there is the Whitewater rafting map in the UK …

Open Whitewater Rafting maps

… and the OpenCycleMap which maps the world’s bicycle routes, and shows the incredible culture of pedestrian and cycling friendly urban planning in the Netherlands.

OpenCycleMaps example

OSM also helps lead the way in humanitarian mapping. When a flood, fire, earthquake or other natural disaster occurs, existing maps provided by Google and Bing are no longer current. Mappers need to create new maps to allow disaster relief teams to coordinate their efforts, target houses for rescues efficiently, or to know what routes relief organisations can take to navigate the terrain. This work is done by the excellent Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. It also includes non natural disasters, such as mapping demographics and environmental issues related to poverty elimination, gender equality, refugee response strategies, public disease outbreaks, clean energy, and water and sanitation. As one current example, right this minute the Monsoon rains have caused severe flooding in the Kurunagala and Puttalam districts of Sri Lanka. A map is being prepared so that first respondents and aid agencies can deliver relief supplies. A grid of zones with their mapping progress is updated in real time below.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps Team map in Nepal

As an open-source creation, it doesn’t data-mine your activity so you can use it as a Maps application without privacy concerns, you can download the raw vector so you can use it offline on your phone, and has a conservative approach to licensing data that allow people who want to embed OSM technologies in their own creations in a much more flexible manner. If you feel strongly about supporting privacy-aware applications (especially after the Cambridge Analytica scandal), and encouraging communities that aren’t motivated by profit, OpenStreetMaps should be something to consider. There are over 1,000,000 mappers who have contributed to OSM, and you can become one of those too.

One of the most amazing things about OSM is that whereas mapping the world is an inherently complex process, it has managed to make it easy and fun and doable by anybody who knows how to draw a rectangle with their mouse. Most of the other open-source initiatives have a high learning curve and lots of technical prerequisites, but OSM is completely the opposite. Just zoom into your city on OSM.org and click the Edit button on the top left. It will give you a short tutorial that lets you draw new roads and buildings within minutes. The thought that has gone into the user-friendliness of this online map editor is absolutely incredible.

OpenStreetMaps iD web-based editing software

I’ll talk about OSM a bit more in upcoming posts, and share some of the more interesting technical sides of things.

Life & much, much more

Deleting Facebook, and a reflection on digital privacy

In the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica privacy issue in the news, I have decided to #DeleteFacebook. The thinkMoult blog is still represented via the public Facebook thinkMoult page, but my private profile has been cleared out. Given that Facebook is increasingly sharing our profile data (as shown in the graph below produced from Facebook’s very own reports), clearing out the account makes a difference, albeit a small one. I also thought it would be good to share a few things I’ve learned about Facebook in the past couple of weeks, related to my new years resolution to improve digital security.

Facebook government requests over time

(Note: you can compare with Google’s data disclosure over time)

First, I’d like to commend Facebook’s behaviour so far. Being the world’s largest social network probably isn’t easy, and Facebook has made initiatives to increase its transparency. For instance, they issue a transparency report, and they use the Signal secure messaging protocol for a secure chat mode in FB Messenger. It is also possible to download your Facebook data, and place restrictions on data sharing with apps and advertisers. Their data retention policy also seems to suggest that if you delete data from your account, it’s also gone from their servers.

However, of course, this isn’t the complete picture. Take for instance the world map of Facebook government requests in the first half of 2017 from their very own transparency report.

Facebook government requests in 2017

The map (split into Jenks natural breaks) shows that US government requests are miles ahead of the rest of the world in asking Facebook for information. Most governments from other countries don’t play any part in this.

However, the map is incomplete. It is also not possible to see data shared through indirect means. Developers can easily create apps that integrate with Facebook. Whether you answer a survey through Facebook or use Facebook to log into another service, they can have varying degrees of access to your profile and friend information. This may also occur without your explicit consent. For instance, my meager Facebook usage has resulted in my details being shared with 138 companies. This is not to mention that Facebook trackers are on 25% of websites online. Oh, and let’s just forget Facebook altogether: Google trackers are on 75% of websites online (and yes, also on my blog). Basically, you are always tracked online, from the way you move your mouse to how you feel, which can be combined through machine learning to indirectly define character profiles, interests, and demographics.

Like most technologies, this data can be used for very positive things and very negative things alike. The negative side comes when services we assume are private social platforms are actually not. This data may be used to influence political elections, or help China rank all citizens, or rebrand political news as fake news in Malaysia, or even be accessed by any law enforcement agency around the world without notification or warrant – it doesn’t matter – people misunderstand that posting on Facebook is not a private matter: it is public.

Deleting Facebook is one step of many to promote the idea that just as there are public outlets for expression online (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) there equally are private outlets (Signal, Tor, ProtonMail). Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with either outlet, but we should recognise these differences in privacy and know when to choose between them.

For more reading, see why digital rights matters, even though you don’t think it impacts you, and how you can improve human rights by changing your messaging app.

Life & much, much more

Improving human rights through secure messaging

Earlier this year, I talked about how important digital privacy is (even if you don’t think it is). I talked about political oppression, and how raising the awareness of basic digital privacy largely benefits those who are politically oppressed. Using secure services increases the amount of infrastructure dedicated towards them and raises the standards of digital security worldwide. But before we talk about how we make the first steps, let’s remind ourselves why this is so important.

2018 Freedom in the World index map

The map above shows the results of the 2018 Freedom in the World index, derived largely from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time, it was signed without competition by all UN member states. Green is free, yellow is partly free, and red is not free. As of 2018, more than half the countries in the world have issues.

Percentage of countries in the freedom in the world index over time

There are quite a few ways to slice and dice freedom index data, but the general trend since the 1970s can be seen in the graph above – showing the distribution of free countries over time. Generally, since the 1970s, we’ve improved a bit, but largely stalled in the past 20 years. More than half the world still seems to have some problems in regard to political and civil liberties, and a few are getting worse. Of course, the above data is a gross simplification, so if you’re interested in seeing more detailed and granular metrics I highly urge you to check other dimensions such as Our World In Data’s Human Rights graphs.

The good news is that we all use the internet, and by using it we shape how it grows, and that allows us to make an impact on human rights. The World Economic Forum illustrates the link between digital privacy and human rights in the quote below:

Digital rights are basically human rights in the internet era. The rights to online privacy and freedom of expression, for example, are really extensions of the equal and inalienable rights laid out in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As a case study, Facebook bi-anually releases a report called the Global Government Requests report (see the 2017 Global Government Requests Report blog post). In the first half of 2017, it shows that there were roughly 79,000 government requests for data for 115,000 user accounts. That’s more than double what it was three years ago (35,000 user accounts). Every report sees an increase in the number of requests, easily growing more than 30% each year. Yikes! That’s some serious compounding privacy interest!

However, there are steps we can take to raise the basic levels of digital privacy online. By adopting these technologies, we increase the global average cost per capita of digital mass surveillance — and reduce its efficacy as a tool to control and oppress those in need.

Our online activity can largely be grouped into three categories, messaging, email, and web browsing. By changing a few habits in our day-to-day online activities, we can make a difference. In this article, we’ll concentrate on messaging.

We send messages all the time – SMSes, through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts and so on. If you’re the statistically average user, you have 2 messaging apps, and they’re both on the chart below. The data comes from Statista, and I’ve rehashed it slightly.

Global monthly active users for different messaging apps

(note: due to a formatting error, you will need to multiply the horizontal axis by 1,000. So Facebook’s numbers are over 2.5 billion!)

What you may not know is that big data on the internet is owned by a handful of companies, governed by a handful of countries. USA’s Facebook and China’s TenCent gathers more of your messages than probably everything else combined. These companies have little to no incentive to protect your data, actively create digital profiles of you, and are based in countries that have governments that are more than happy to ask for it to be disclosed. .

But don’t listen to me, listen to Amnesty International’s Encryption and Human Rights Report instead. Unless you’re using Facebook’s WhatsApp (which is the least bad), Amnesty International thinks you deserve a slap on the wrist. Worst of all messaging apps is China-based TenCent’s QQ and WeChat, which scores a 0 out of 100 in protecting human rights. It has no encryption specification, does not recognise threats to human rights, made no commitment to freedom of expression, actively detects and censors content, and does not refuse backdoor implementations. So, if you send money through WeChat (yes, WeChat has higher transaction volumes than PayPal), guess what? It’s public! We could go through the many examples of public data but I’ll let you read the publication yourself and judge.

So what makes Facebook’s WhatsApp the least bad? Well, for a start it has publicly stated there is no encryption backdoor – no built-in mechanism for sharing your data. It’s more transparent and tries to notify you if your data is being requested, and produces bi-annual reports that we saw above. But perhaps the most effective secret sauce — the gold-standard of digital humans rights protection — is that it supports end-to-end encryption. This means that the moment your message leaves your device, nothing can read it.

WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption isn’t it’s own invention. Like any robust cryptography standard, it is based off free and open-source software. Many years ago, defectors from Twitter started a collaborative effort called Open Whisper Systems and developed the Signal secure messaging system. Signal is not owned by any company or country, is open-source, and primarily funded by the Freedom of the Press foundation. For instance, if you want to tip off The Guardian, Signal is one of your options.

Signal logo

However despite WhatsApp’s best intentions in using the Signal system under the hood, its nature as a Facebook acquisition, organizational structure and some of its other technical decisions means that WhatsApp falls short of Signal’s encryption standards. In short, WhatsApp retains metadata about your contacts and messages, which may be used to infer information about you (much more than you might think!). Luckily, the small core team that built the Signal system also have their own app, which is completely privacy focused. It looks just like any other messaging app out there, and anyone can use it if they truly want to get top-notch security and privacy. Here’s a screenshot of it from the official Signal website. If you have an iPhone or Android, you can download it from the app store for free. It works on your computer with a computer app, and also works as a Signal command line app if you’re a terminal junkie.

Signal messenger app screenshot

In fact, the core Signal app is such an ideal state of privacy in the messaging world that apart from earning a special mention in the Amnesty International report, it also earned a 50 million USD investment from the co-founder of WhatsApp. Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp, was around when WhatsApp made the initial jump to use Signal as its system under the hood, and after he left Facebook and WhatsApp, donated to create the Signal Foundation – a non profit organisation to protect data privacy, transparency, and open-source development, which aligns with Acton’s personal beliefs.

If two people want a private conversation, electronic or not, they should be allowed to have it. – Brian Acton, WhatsApp co-founder

There’s still so much to talk about, but let’s stop here. I highly recommend that even if you do not fully understand the technical background behind encryption or the full extent of the humans rights impact, to take the first step and install Signal.

See you on the other side!

P.S. For the more technically inclined, you may instead be interested in setting up your own XMPP server that supports the OMEMO XEP. OMEMO is an implementation of the same cryptographic technique pioneered by the Signal protocol, and XMPP offers decentralised messaging, in contrast to Signal Messenger, which for all practical purposes is a centralised system (theoretically, it is possible for somebody to use the protocol and build in federation support).

Life & much, much more

Australian electrical infrastructure maps

Today we’re going to take a brief look at Australia’s electrical infrastructure. The dataset is available publicly from Geoscience Australia, but for those who don’t dabble in GIS software it can be a little hard to get to. I’ve put it all together in QGIS, and here’s a few snapshots for the curious. Now you can pretend you’re an expert electrical engineer and say judgemental things about Australia!

These maps cover major national powers stations, electricity transmission lines, and substations. If you’ve ever wondered where your electricity comes from, or how it gets to your house, this may give you a brief idea of how it all fits together.

Let’s start with Australia as a whole. Translucent circles represent electrical power stations, and their size is weighted by the generation capacity. For convenience, any power station that has a generation capacity of greater than 250MW is labeled. Any non-renewable source is shaded black, and renewables are shaded in red. Transmission power lines are in red, and substations are the small red dots. Transmission lines are weighted based on their voltage capacity – thicker means more kV, thinner means less. Dotted transmission lines occur underground and the rest are overhead.

You can click any map for a high resolution version.

Australian electrical infrastructure map

Detailed analysis aside, we can see that Australia is still largely based on non-renewables. This is unsurprising. Similarly unsurprising is the south-east coast concentration, and proximity to densely populated areas. Tasmania is mostly devoid of non-renewables, which is great, but what’s that large red circle in the south east? Let’s take a look in more detail.

NSW electrical infrastructure map

Zooming into NSW, we can capture Talbingo Dam, which services the Tumut hydroelectric power station. Tumut is special as it is the highest-capacity renewable power station, and according to the list of major power stations by the Department of Resources & Energy, it has a capacity of 2,465MW. Put into context, this is just under the 2800MW capacity of the Bayswater coal plant, the second largest non-renewable power plant in NSW.

All this talk about capacity is really important because most renewable power stations have a capacity of less than 100MW. So you would have to build say 20-40 renewable power stations to equal the capacity of a single coal plant. If you excluded Tumut and Murray (the next high capacity hydro after Tumut), and added up every single renewable power plant in NSW (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, biofuel, and biogas), you would only then equal the capacity of your average NSW coal plant. Snowy Hydro, which runs the show, are damn successful, and the secret is in the name: snow makes for good hydro! All that melting and sudden runoff is great for electricity.

Sydney electrical infrastructure map

Zooming further into the Sydney region shows coal around the perimeter, as well as the local contender which is the Warragamba dam hydro. Despite the promise of the Warragamba dam hydro, it is important to note that it is disconnected from the grid and only provides power when the dam is at a certain level. This is quite a rare occasion for Warragamba, which provides 80% of the potable water of Sydney. On my recent visit to Warragamba, I was actually told that the hydro is being shut down due to high operating costs. Simply put, the dam is better as a reservoir instead of a hydro source.

Sydney electrical infrastructure map zoomed in

Let’s take a closer look at the Sydney region. We see a spatter of renewables and non-renewables. Still, the non-renewables outweigh the renewables – we’ll take a closer look at insolation and local solar capacity in a future blog post, but right now the only renewables of note are the biogases. In short, these stem off landfills (Eastern Creek, Lucas Heights, and Spring Farm) and industrial wastelands (Camellia). Also interesting to note is that just like the Warragamba dam, all of these landfills are already shut down or close to shutting down. We’ll talk about the waste issue and landfill capacities in a future blog post too.

In summary, Australia has a little bit more work to do. Of course, the issue is a lot deeper than these maps, but we can’t cram everything into one blog post, so hopefully it’s enough to whet your appetite.

Life & much, much more

Digital privacy is important, even though you think it doesn’t impact you

The average person (or business entity) publicly shares their personal information on the internet. If you search with Google, send email with Gmail, talk with Facebook Messenger, and browse the Web with Chrome, you are being tracked. These free services, and many more, store and analyse your personal messages, search history, cloud photos, and the websites you visit. This information is readily available to governments, hackers, or really any business or person who is interested and willing to pay (law firms, journalists, advertisers, etc).

This is not news to most people. You have perhaps experienced an advertisement pop up suddenly related to a website you visited that you thought was private. You have probably had Facebook recommend new friends who you just met a week ago. However, these are all rather benign examples that don’t warrant paranoia over your digital security.

As part of my 2018 new years resolution I have been taking a closer look at my online privacy. Many people have questioned me on it and so I thought I would address it in a blog post. To begin with, I’d like to refer you to a great TED Talk on Why Privacy Matters. Take 20 minutes to watch it and come back.

Glenn Greenwald - TED - Why Privacy Matters

For those too lazy to click, Glenn Greenwald makes the point that we don’t behave the same way in the physical world and the virtual world. In the physical world, we lock our houses, cover our PIN at the ATM, close the curtains, don’t talk about business secrets in public, and use an empty room when having a private conversation. This is largely because we understand that in the physical world, we can open unlocked doors, glance at PIN keypads, peek through curtains, listen to company gossip, and overhear conversations.

In the virtual world, we are unfortunately uneducated about how to snoop on other’s private information. We assume that sending an email on Gmail is private, or opening an incognito mode browser hides everything. This is far from the truth: mass surveillance is relatively cheap and easy, and there are many organisations that are well invested in knowing how to snoop. However, for the most of us, we only experience this through tailored advertising. As a result, there is little motivation to care about privacy.

In this post, I will not talk about how you are tracked, or how to secure yourself. These are deep topics that deserve more discussion by themselves. However, I do want to talk about why privacy matters.

The right to privacy is a basic human right. Outside the obvious desire to hide company secrets, financial and medical information, we behave differently when we are being watched. You can watch adult videos if you close the door, buy different things if you don’t have a judgmental cashier, and talk about different things on the phone if you aren’t sitting on a train in public.

Again, these are benign and socially accepted norms. However, there are people living in countries where the norm is largely biased against their favour. Global issues like corruption and political oppression exist, even though many of us are lucky to turn a blind eye. Victims of these countries are censored, incarcerated, and killed. See for yourself where your country ranks in the list of freedom indices.

In these societies, a greater percentage of the population start to be impacted by the poor digital security that we practice. We can see this in the following graph, which shows the usage of The Tor Project, a tool that anonymises Internet traffic, correlating with political oppression (read the original study).

Correlation of Tor usage and political repression

Further investigation shows that Tor usage (see how Tor statistics are derived) similarly correlates to politically sensitive events. As of writing this post, I rewinded the clock to the three most recent political events that occurred in countries which experience censorship and political oppression.

First, we have the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. You can see the tripling in activity as this event occurred. The red dots show potential censorship.

Chinese Tor usage spikes during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

Similarly, we can see a turbulent doubling in value during the blocks of social media and TV channels in Pakistan.

Pakistan Tor usage during the social media block

Finally, a spike of usage and statistically relevant censorship / release of censorship events during the anti-government protests in Iran.

Iran Tor usage spikes during Protests in Iran, blocking of various services including Tor

These three events were simply picked as the most three recent political events. Whether they are good or bad is largely irrelevant and I hold no opinion on them whatsoever. However, it is clear that others do have an opinion, and are using services like Tor as a reaction. Of course, it’s not just Tor. For example, a couple weeks ago, 30,000 Turks were incorrectly accused of treason from a 1×1 tracking pixel. This results in jobs, houses, and innocent lives being lost. In the US, Governors are still signing in support of Net Neutrality.

Despite these issues, there are those that believe that as long as we do not do anything bad, there is nothing to hide. Privacy tools are used by criminals, not the common population. This is also untrue. The definition of “bad” changes depending on who is in power, and criminals are motivated individuals who have much better privacy tools than most will ever have. Statistically, increasing the basic awareness of privacy does not increase criminal activity, but does increase protection of the unfairly oppressed.

Those who are fortunate enough to live a complacent digital life tend to decrease the average awareness of digital privacy. Just as we donate relief aid to countries that experience wars or natural disasters, we should promote awareness about digital freedom on the behalf of those who do not have it. Nurturing a more privacy aware generation -a generation who is born with a tablet in their hands- is a responsibility to ensure that social justice and the expression of the marginalised population remains possible.

Next up, I’ll talk a bit about what tracking does occur, and what privacy tools are out there.

Life & much, much more

Gentoo Linux blogs on Planet Larry

If you use Gentoo Linux, you probably know that you find Gentoo Linux blogs on Planet Gentoo. If you haven’t heard of a planet before, A planet is a website that aggregates a series of blog feeds, and most open-source communities have one. For example, there is also Planet KDE and Planet GNOME. Planet Gentoo, however, is limited to the topic of Gentoo Linux itself, and only aggregates content by Gentoo developers. In the past, Steve Dibb (beandog) started up planet Larry, named after the Gentoo mascot “Larry“, which hosted blogs of Gentoo users. Naturally, Gentoo users get up to all sort of interesting endeavours, and so begun a slightly less technical, less stringently project-specific blog feed. Here’s a picture of Larry below.

Larry the cow mascot

Unfortunately, recently after checking back at my old feedreader list, I noticed that Planet Larry had gone AWOL, and so decided to recreate it. It was never an official Gentoo project and Steve Dibb didn’t seem around, and the domain name (larrythecow.org) at the time seemed to be squatted on by advertisers. If you visit it now, despite a half-baked attempt at a Gentoo-ish theme it was filled with “laptop recommendations”. Instead, I registered planetlarry.org and started up a new aggregator. The concept is the same as the original. In short:

  • If you use Gentoo Linux and write a blog which has a feed, you can add your blog to Planet Larry
  • You can write about anything you want, as often as you want. It doesn’t necessarily need to be related to Gentoo Linux at all — although I did find that most Gentoo Linux Blogs seem to have more technical content.

So, go ahead and check out PlanetLarry.org. If you contact me I will add your blog.

Credits for the Larry the cow male graphic go to Ethan Dunham and Matteo Pescarin, licensed under CC-BY-SA/2.5.

Life & much, much more

2018 New years resolutions

The first half of January’s resolution probation period has ended, and so it’s perhaps safe to post the goals for the year. So in no particular order, here they are.

  • Blog more. There’s a lot that’s been happening, and very little of it sees the light of day online. There are plenty of projects to provoke, reflect upon, or just answer your organic search query. My blogging habits used to be a couple times a week, and slowly died down as life took over. It certainly shows in the analytics dashboard. By the end of the year, monthly sessions should equal the same numbers seen in 2015. This means content creation, content creation, and more content creation. You can probably already see that a mobile friendly theme has been refreshed, new categories, and a few posts already published.
  • Divest. Financially, investors in their 20s can take a long-term view. This is the time to build up investing habits, and experience different markets. By the end of the year, I would like to invest in 20 different markets and start understanding my risk profile. Last year I experienced managed funds, blue-chip stocks, and rode the crypto currency roller coaster. This year will be more.
  • Consume intelligently. The environment is changing. Now is as good a time as any to build habits to be a more ethical consumer. We vote with our dollars, and it is our responsibility to support supply chains that promote good values in our society. Once consumed, we should break the disposable habit that arose sometime in the previous generation, and go towards zero-waste.
  • Improve digital security. The crypto boom is the public’s first taste of moving more traditional assets into a decentralised network. Unlike centralised systems, decentralised systems are very hard to kill. I foresee more of our digital lives being interconnected, even if we don’t realise it. It is pertinent that we promote more usage of privacy practices, such as password managers, secure protocols, self-hosted infrastructure, encryption, and signing.
  • Begin longer term work and life. I’ve been in the architecture industry for a year and a half now after being primarily in software. It’s probably time for training wheels off, and to start specialising in an area of architecture that is socially beneficial. Similarly, despite the prohibitive housing costs here in Sydney, the ongoing market correction suggests it’s time to revisit settling down in the more traditional sense.

Until 2019, then.

Life & much, much more

Brand new Gentoo desktop computer

It’s 2018, and my 5 year old trusty Thinkpad 420i has decided to overheat for its last time. After more than 10 years of laptops, I decided to go for a desktop. I spoke to a fellow at Linux Now, who supplies custom boxes with Linux preinstalled, and are located in Melbourne, Australia (as of writing, no complaints with their service at all). A week later, I was booting up and my old laptop was headed to the nearest e-waste recycling centre. Here’s the obligatory Larry cowsay:

$ cowsay `uname -a`
 _______________________________________ 
/ Linux dooby 4.12.12-gentoo #1 SMP Tue \
| Nov 28 09:55:21 AEDT 2017 x86_64 AMD  |
| Ryzen 5 1600X Six-Core Processor      |
\ AuthenticAMD GNU/Linux                /
 --------------------------------------- 
        \   ^__^
         \  (oo)\_______
            (__)\       )\/\
                ||----w |
                ||     ||

Being a desktop machine, it lacks portability but this is mitigated as you can run Gentoo on your phone. Combine your phone with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you have a full-on portable workstation. Your desktop will be much more powerful than your laptop, at half the price.

Tower machine

And of course, here are the hardware specs.

  • AMD Ryzen 5 1600X CPU (5 times faster than my laptop) As of writing, these Ryzens are experiencing some instability related to kernel bug 196683, but the workarounds in the bug report seem to solve it.
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050Ti GPU (16 times faster than my laptop). Yes, proprietary blob drivers are in use.
  • 16GB DDR4 2400Mhz RAM
  • 250GB SSD
  • 23.6in 1920×1080 16:9 LCD Monitor
  • Filco Majestouch-2, Tenkeyless keyboard. If you’ve never needed a clean-cut professional mechanical keyboard that isn’t as bulky as the IBM Model M, I’d highly recommend this one.

Filco Majestouch-2, Tenkeyless keyboard

Software-wise, it is running Gentoo Linux with KDE. Backup server is hosted by rsync.net. The worldfile is largely the same as my old laptop, with the addition of newsbeuter for RSS feeds. Happy 2018!

Life & much, much more

Practical Abhidhamma Course for Theravāda Buddhists

Today, I’d like to briefly introduce a project for Theravāda Buddhists. Buddhism, like most religions, have a few sacred texts to describe their teachings. One of these texts, the “Abhidhamma”, is rather elusive and complicated to understand. My dad has been teaching this difficult topic for the past 15 years, and over the past year and half, has written a 200-page introductory book for those who want to see what all the fuss is about. It’s chock-full of diagrams, references, and bad jokes.

To quote from the actual page:

There are eight lessons in this course covering selected topics from the Abhidhamma that are most practical and relevant to daily life. Though it is called a “Practical Abhidhamma Course,” it is also a practical Dhamma course using themes from the Abhidhamma. The Dhamma and the Abhidhamma are not meant for abstract theorizing; they are meant for practical application. I hope you approach this course not only to learn new facts, but also to consider how you can improve yourself spiritually.

So, click to go ahead and learn about the Abhidhamma.

Practical-Abhidhamma

I had the pleasure of helping on various technical and visual aspects, and I’m happy to launch PracticalAbhidhamma.com which will serve the book as well as any future supplementary content. For those interested, the book was typeset with LaTeX, with diagrams provided by Inkscape with LaTeX rendering for text labels.

Life & much, much more

Space architecture – a history of space station designs

To quote the beginning of the full article:

This article explores different priorities of human comfort and how these priorities were satisfied in standalone artificial environments, such as space stations.

If you’re impatient and just want to read the full article, click to read A history of design and human factors in Space Stations.

… or if you want a bit more background, read on …

I began investigating in more detail the field of space architecture last year. Although I had a bit of experience from the ISSDC, I was much more interested in real current designs as opposed to hypothetical scenarios.

Space architecture, and its parent field of design is a broad one. It’s an engineering challenge, an economic challenge, a logistical challenge, a political challenge, you name it. As an architect, the priorities of space station/settlement designs lie with the people that inhabit it. Simply put, you don’t call an architect to build a rocket, but when a person is living inside that rocket, especially if they’re stuck there for a while, that’s when you call your architect.

This means that when an architect looks at designing a space station, although they need to be aware of the technical constraints of the environment (gravity, air, temperature, structure, radiation, transport, health), their true expertise lies in understanding how to make people comfortable and productive within that space. This means that space architects need to understand to an incredible amount of detail how we perceive and are affected by our environment. Much more so than Earth architects, who have the advantage of the natural world, which is usually much nicer than whatever is indoors, as well as existing social and urban infrastructure. Space architects don’t have this benefit, and so the entire “world” is limited to what they can fit inside a large room.

This point: space architects are responsible for the happiness of humans, is an absolutely vital one, and unfortunately often missed. Too many architects are instead raptured by the technological pornography of the environment, the intricate constraints, or even the ideological ability to “reimagine our future”. No. The reality is much more humble: space architecture is about rediscovering what humans hold dear in the world. You cannot claim to reinvent a better future if you do not yet understand what we already appreciate in the present.

And so if my point has made any impact, please go ahead and read A history of design and human factors in Space Stations, where I walk through the history of space station designs, their priorities, and what architects are looking at now.

Space architecture - how cosy

Cosy, isn’t it? Also, a TED Talk on How to go to space, without having to go to space shares many of my thoughts, and would be worth watching.

Life & much, much more

Things I should’ve done earlier.

On Linux, there are things that you know are better but you don’t switch because you’re comfortable where you are. Here’s a list of the things I’ve changed the past year that I really should’ve done earlier.

  • screen -> tmux
  • irssi/quassel -> weechat + relay
  • apache -> nginx
  • dropbox -> owncloud
  • bash -> zsh
  • bootstrapping vim-spf -> my own tailored and clean dotfiles
  • phing -> make
  • sahi -> selenium
  • ! mpd -> mpd (oh why did I ever leave you)
  • ! mutt -> mutt (everything else is severely broken)
  • a lot of virtualbox instances -> crossbrowsertesting.com (much less hassle, with support for selenium too!)

… would be interested to know what else I could be missing out on! :)

Life & much, much more

Competitive weight loss with WeightRace.net

So last year (or perhaps even the year before, time flies!) two people close to me participated in a friendly weight-loss competition. To do this, they used WeightRace.net.

WeightRace is a small web application I built a while ago for fun, which allows up to four contestants to compete towards a weight goal which they would set. They would be prompted daily for weight updates, and would set a reward for the winner. It also used some lightweight gamification so contestants could earn bonus “wobbly bits” when achieving things like their BMI.

But enough talking about the application — applications are boring! Much more interesting are results! Let’s see:

WeightRace - competitive weight loss

The two contestants — whom we shall refer to as Rob and Julie, which may or may not be their real name — and their results are shown in the graph above. Julie is red, Rob is blue, and their linear trajectories towards their weight goal is shown via the corresponding coloured dotted line.

If I could hear a sped-up commentary of the results, it would truly be exciting! Rob makes an excellent head-start well ahead of his trajectory, whereas Julie is having trouble beginning. As we near the holiday (Christmassy) season, we see Rob’s progress plateauing, whereas Julie gets her game on and updates with a rigorous discipline. Also great to notice is the regular upward hikes in Julie’s weight – those correspond with weekends! As the holidays pass, Rob makes gains and is unable to recover.

In the end, although Julie wins the Race, neither Julie or Rob met their weight goal (note that in terms of absolute figures, Rob actually wins). However, this was all not in vain. Given that almost another year has passed since this race finished, and I can see that Rob’s weight is now well under control and has indeed achieved his goal, I’d like to think that the WeightRace has played a role.

In particular, the WeightRace helped raise daily awareness. I believe that it was this daily awareness of the current weight that helped most in the long-term. In addition, the WeightRace helped Rob’s body to stabilise around 90kg for half a year! I suspect his body figured out that it could manage at that weight, which made it easier for him to (after the WeightRace) continue to lose weight at a healthy pace.

For those interested in playing with the WeightRace, you can check it out online at WeightRace.net. Note though that it is not actually complete, but works good enough for a competition. For those interested in the source, it’s up on my GitHub.

Life & much, much more

The Architecture Graduate Exhibition – University of Sydney

On the 5th of December, there will be the Architecture Graduate Exhibition at the University of Sydney. Yes, that’s right, my Bachelors degree is over! But before I move on to Masters, other projects, and life, I would like to dedicate a post to the exhibition itself.

The Architecture Graduate Exhibition is an annual event which showcases the work of all the graduating students. This year, it’ll feature the the graduating Bachelors, who show projects tackling the controversial redevelopment of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, and the graduating Masters, who’ll showcase three distinct projects. Our organising team of five including myself are happy to present “ANALOGUE” (that’s an artsy theme, in case you haven’t guessed).

Architecture Graduate Exhibition - USyd - Logo

If you are available in Sydney on the 5th of December, be sure to drop in at the Wilkinson Building at 148 City Road around 6PM for live music (which I shall participate), free booze (which I shall graciously donate), and perhaps some design here and there.

This year shall also feature the release of the first online graduate exhibition catalogue. This’ll be reused in future years. It’s still under wraps but will be released at UsydArchExhibition.com once I have enough entries. You may also follow our Analogue Architecture Exhibition Facebook page where we post ongoings – you might witness the 200 plinths we built (don’t mind the mess in the backdrop, that’s the natural state of a creative environment).

Analogue Architecture Exhibition Plinths

Back to work!

Life & much, much more

A bullet point blog post because I’m back in business

What a hectic month. Will post about projects later, but here’s a bit of here and there:

  • Final exam on Monday 18th then I will truly be free.
  • All servers and boxes updated to latest software after several months.
  • Amarok is an amazing app, but that it took me this long to wrap my head around is a little sad. The MusicBrainz tagger is a lifesaver.
  • New GPG keys. It’s been 3 years since my old one.
  • Finally got around to talking to the registrars upstream to remove the hold status from WIPUP.org. It’s back online, still running the old Eadrax, but has some hotfixes applied.
  • The KDE Connect GSOC project is great.
  • The Sydney Architecture Revue went very well. Can’t wait for next year.
  • Oh, what’s this?

More posts later.