George Monbiot and the looming energy crisis

A friend attended the talk given by George Monbiot when he was recently in Cape Town. The gist is given in a Mail and Guardian article on the same talk in Jhb (the article’s in a horrible archive format!).

Monbiot had talked about a looming energy crisis, as oil is running out. He mentioned that we would look back on the last 50 years as an opportunity lost to make serious inroads into world poverty, and that humanity would not have access to this sort of cheap energy again. Afterwards, there were a number of questions. One person queried whether oil was relevant, as cars were now moving to hydrogen as a fuel source (the Toyota Prius is even soon to be available in South Africa).

Monbiot apparently answered that “hydrogen as a fuel source takes energy to create. Where’s that energy going to come from? Certainly not oil!” I don’t agree with his conclusion. Governments will not sit by and let energy run dry. There are two realistic options (assuming coal is out – it will last slightly longer than oil, but shares the same fundamental problems): The pessimistic option. Nuclear. In spite of the fact that we can’t safely dispose of the high level waste, I doubt many governments will let that bother them. Besides, it’s a good smokescreen for nuclear weapons. An energy crunch may see a proliferation of nuclear power plants and therefore nuclear weapons. The high road – renewables! The main argument against renewables is cost. They are deemed to be more expensive forms of energy than oil/coal/nuclear. This is nonsense if you remove all government and research subsidies, as well as look at environmental and storage costs. The cost of generating renewable energy has dropped markedly over the last few years, without much in the way of funding. When oil runs out, many governments will swing that way, and I believe we’ll soon see a much greater rollout of renewable energy power stations. It cannot but be cheaper than nuclear, taking into account the costs of disposal (or storage), security etc.

So here’s to my hydrogen-powered car and solar powered house!

Gonzo predicts the US election

Yes, finally I succumb and write something on the US election. The inspiration was one of my favourite writers, Hunter S. Thompson – see his . excellent article on IOL. A colleague knows a supposedly accurate clairvoyant who’s predicted a Kerry win. With nothing better but a clairvoyant and blind hope to go on I’m cautiously positive. Neil Blakey-Milner has also cracked and posted on the election – his post led me to commentary.co.za’s endorsement of Kerry. While streets apart from them politically, I take solace in their conservative endorsement of Kerry.

I’ve questioned myself quite extensively on this – wouldn’t another Bush win lead to a positive outcome? Is there really a difference between them? Is Kerry not the respectable face of American imperialism? With Bush being so dislikeable, perhaps a win for him would lead to invigoration amongst environmentalists and other progressive forces. Every effect has an opposing effect – the aftermath of World War II was positive, humans undertaking not to repeat the atrocities. Bush is not up there with Hitler yet, but who knows what a second term would bring. Right now Bush is the planet’s number one baddie, but I’d like to be optimistic, and think that people can say ‘never again’ without Bush having to go to the level of Nazi Germany. I do really believe that humanity is evolving – the level of opposition to the Iraq invasion gives me hope. In the US, there’s already a groundswell of support for democracy, many new voters registering and probably voting for the first time as they realise a vote does make a difference (see the M&G’s article on Ohio’s non-voters getting a push (it’s a locked article). I’m still optimistic – I think voting does make a difference. In the South African General election I encountered this same issue, with progressive friends deciding not to vote, some supporting calls from a social movement, and others just apathetic. I still believe a non-vote is in effect a vote for the status quo – American’s who didn’t vote effectively supported Bush. South African’s who didn’t vote supported a two-thirds majority for the ANC. The idea of a non-vote as protest does not hold water – the system treats the non-voters as apathetic and they exclude themselves from any influence on the outcome.

In a poll of international readers on the US presidential election, I voted for David Cobb – I bet most of you haven’t a clue who he is! There’re quite a few candidates to choose from. The fact that only two have the funding to win shows up the flaws in the US system. If I were really American I’d probably have to vote for Kerry, a pragmatic choice with it coming down to him or Bush. Hooray for proportional representation here. Neil made an interesting point in his blog when deciding to post on the topic – that the South African election rarely gets analysed in this detail. Perhaps. I’d like to think I spent more effort deciding who to vote for locally than I did on the US election, but it’s a fact that the US being the superpower bully they are, who they choose to lead them has a disproportionate effect on us down on the Southern tip of Africa. I mean how much coverage has the Botswanan election got?

I surprised myself and managed not to froth too much in my US election post, and I promise that’ll be it, at least until it’s all over.

MySQL 4.1 and FreeBSD 5.3

MySQL 4.1 has been released as production, and it’s a big step forward. Perhaps it’s about time to update my book and start working on a Mastering MySQL 5. Also due to be released is FreeBSD 5.3 (it’s just been delayed from Oct 25 to Nov 5). The database servers at work are running on MySQL 4.0 and FreeBSD 4, on 3Ghz Athlons, but they’re starting to creak again. As FreeBSD users know, FreeBSD 5.3 offers enhanced multi-processor performance without using Linux threads (Jeremy Zawodny’s blog had some popular posts about Linux vs FreeBSD for MySQL, culminating in this suggestion. We’ve never used Linux thread as the single CPU servers have been sufficient until now, but it’s time an upgrade. If no-one’s done it by then, when everything’s ready in mid-November we’ll look at benchmarking the options. I’m hoping that FreeBSD lives up to the hype (especially since it’s hype from those in the know rather than marketing wishful-thinking) and we’ll see a significant performance boost.

MySQL 4.1 also offers some potential performance benefits (I wrote a MySQL roadmap a while back, as well as a more recent update). Prepared statements mean MySQL needs to parse a query it will run multiple times just once. Secondly the new binary protocol for prepared statements means that the client no longer needs to convert the data into string format. These will probably both be minor improvements in our environment, and I suspect they may be counterbalanced by the weight of the extra features, but we’ll have to see.

Related Updates:

Found a great quote on Cath’s M&G blog.

“Psychosclerosis: the hardening of the attitude which causes a person to cease dreaming, seeing, thinking, and leading.”

Ashley Montague

In my case it’s caused by interminable meetings about trivialities. Now that I’m working 3-day weeks (Tue-Thu), I find I can see by Saturday and think by Monday. Now for the other two…

Defending the Fox

After my post on Banking and Open Source in South Africa I’ve been made aware of the Defending the Fox site, which lists non standards-compliant offenders. It’s an awful design (they say they’re changing it soon), but I like the principle, especially the ability to contact the owner. Hopefully they’ll take the criticism constructively.

Here’s an example of a reply I got from my complaint about the Government Retail Bonds website not working. All quite polite, but clear they’re not going to fix their site:

Dear Mr Ian Gilfillan

Thank you for the query that you forwarded. The National Treasury appreciate the interest in this secure and safe investment.

Kindly note that the recommended software and hardware requirements as recommended by our Privacy and Security Policy document is clearly stated as follows:
“We recommend that Users use:
* At least Internet Explorer Version 5.5. or higher.
* Device/computer with a screen resolution of at least 1024 by 768.”

Should a potential investor not have this recommended software and hardware required , the other options available are to:

* Call the National Treasury at 012 31 55 888 for an application form
* Apply at the Post Office closer to you

etc etc

So Firefox 0.10.1 is not higher than IE 5.5? Maybe they’re right, it’s not higher, it’s on a different plane!

Kim McClenaghan – Revisitings

I recently bought two poetry books, both written by recent graduates of the UCT Creative Writing MA. I studied creative writing in my second and third years at UCT as part of my BA – a course I enjoyed more and found more valuable than my IT studies. In spite of the intellectual snobbery that is directed towards arts and social sciences from the science and commerce worlds, I felt I learnt more in that course, and feel tremendously grateful for having the opportunity. Not too many have majors in both IT and Arts, and the combination has given me an important perspective on the strengths and failings of both disciplines.

Having read one of the books, Revisitings by Kim McClenaghan, I did some searching on the web, and found surprisingly little. So much of todays knowledge does not yet exist on the digital media. Books are written, sold to a small audience, and forgotten, doing a disservice to the content. Poetry doesn’t work for me online – it’s best read besides a stream, in a forest, as I did today, but there needs to be some sort of digital presence. So, doing my bit, I’ve added the author to Wikipedia. There was a slightly different version of one of Kim’s poems at Michael Cope’s Virtual Anthology – a great idea, but seemingly a once-off.

I enjoyed Kim’s his poetry – if the term romantic incorporates the cliche of pining after lost loves, it clearly applies to him, and not to me. I found the theme repetetive at times, but there were moments of inspiration, especially in the first few poems. In That Time “all poems are about endings,/words cease only in death”, he develops the idea of writer as being forced to write “we choose either/to write or die”. In Only Night “I write to live/or live to write of life”. Mentions of CP Cavafy, Guy Butler, Arthur Nortje and Douglas Livingstone betray his influences, and probably the influence of UCT MA course director and well-known poet Stephen Watson. A solid work, I look forward to reading the other, Personae by Sarah Johnson. Just to give myself some balance I’ve also recently bought two works by old masters – History is the Home Address by Mongane Wally Serote, one of my favourite South African poets, as well as Even the Dead by Jeremy Cronin.

Visited Countries

Thanks to a link I discovered at Forest Blog, I’ve created a Visited Countries image. I’ve visited all of 4% of the world’s countries. And that includes a bus drive through France on my way from Holland to the UK. At least I excluded Brazil – Sao Paulo airport is not something I want to remember. These kind of things do encourage a list mentality of course. Been there, ticked it off, next please. I don’t even feel I’ve explored much of South Africa, or even Cape Town. There’s a whole world of discovery right outside your doorstep – how many of my neighbours names do I even know?

But back to the link – there are some interesting projects at (onetime?) Google employee Douwe Osinga’s site.

Banking and Open Source in South Africa

Now that I’m finally moved off the Windows2000 machine I’d been using at work (all of the developers have been using Linux a while, either Gentoo, Mandrake or Fedora, as have most of the editorial staff, so it was disgraceful that the IT Manager who got everyone to run on Open Source hasn’t been doing so himself!), and am running Mandrake on my laptop, it’s time to look at that ‘hall of shame’ I’ve been meaning to put together a while. How do South African banks shape up when it comes to Open Source.

Sadly, pretty badly.

The obvious 2 are the ‘online’ banks, 20Twenty and Icanonline. They offer better interest rates, lower charges – surely they would support open standards? I currently use Icanonline, and have been very happy, but plan to retire all Windows machines from my life. I’ll keep this discussion simple: do the sites work on Linux (or anything besides IE), and what interest rates do they pay with a R10 000 positive balance, and with a R100 000 positive balance (perhaps I’m being a tad optimistic here). Bank charges are another story altogether. I’d suggest looking at the Bankmonitor site for more on this.

Icanonline:
Great interest rate of 6.05% for anything above R10 000, but the menus don’t work, making the site unusable. Interest of R50.41/R504.16 per month if you have a R10 000/R100 000 balance.

20Twenty:
Not quite so good interest rate: 3% at R10 000, 6% at >R20 000. I’ve been assured by a Wired Warrior that the site works on Mozilla, but I can’t even complete the application form successfully (don’t oops me, I assure you that radio button was checked!). Interest works out to R25/R500 per month at R10 000/R100 000.

FNB:
Works on Linux and a fairly wide variety of platforms. I was going to write ‘impressive tech’, but I’m feeling churlish today – just since most of the banks don’t do it, doesn’t mean it’s impressive. This should be standard! So FNB meet the minimum standards. However, dismal interest rate of 1.25% at R10 000, moving up to 4% at R100 000. That’s R10.41/R333.33 interest per month at R10 000/R100 000.

Standard Bank:
Dismal interest of 1.5% and 3.8%. Site doesn’t fill one with hope, talking only about IE 5 or higher, but menus seem to work with Mozilla, and I’ve heard the site does work. If anyone knows more, please let me know. R12.50 and R316.66 interest respectively.

Nedbank:

It gets worse! Interest of 1% and 3.5%, and the site seems up the pole. I can’t find a page mentioning browser requirements, the site map has one page on it, and the interactive demo is a tiny window that I can’t click on. So I can only assume this site isn’t working on Linux. If the interest rates don’t chase you away, the tech will! You’d earn a whopping R8.33/R291.66. Don’t fool yourself that with bank charges you’ll come close to a profit!

Absa:
1.2% and 3.8%. After Icanonline and 20Twenty I would have called this dismal, but it doesn’t seem so bad after the other misnamed ‘Big Four’. Can’t find specific information about the browsers, but the demo seems to work, although some of the rendering is a little off. Does anyone know more? R10/R316.66 interest earned.

So, what am I to do? Icanonline and 20Twenty both offer tempting packages, but the tech doesn’t work. Do I have to effectively pay hundreds of rands more (with bank charges) to be able to bank on Linux? These banks happily chase away the 1 in 25 people who can’t use their sites (based upon the September IOL figures, probably a good overview of general South African readership). Perhaps I should apply for a 20Twenty account on IE, and then test whether the actual banking works on Mozilla. How many customers would go to this much trouble 🙂 I’ll keep you posted.

MySQL certification

A number of my staff are doing the MySQL certification. When I came up with the idea, I planned to do some training, but working 3 days a week doesn’t leave me much time to do anything besides sit in meetings anymore, so that hasn’t happened. But, I’m sure they’ll all do well in the Core exam. 2 wrote today and I know that at least Aubrey has passed – well done! I plan to do the test too, mainly because I’ve had quite a few offers to do training since writing my book, Mastering MySQL 4. Many students will want to certify, and I figure I should know what they’re up against.

A good warmup for the MySQL certification is the Brainbench MySQL test. It’s for MySQL 3, but many of the basics are the same. I’d imagine it’s tougher than the Core exam (as it covers administration topics as well), but perhaps easier than the Professional.