Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Tear down this wall...

Berlin Brandenburg barriers in use at Berlin Tegel Airport in 2014
...and rebuild it to legal standards.

Berlin's ill-fated Brandenburg Airport has hit yet another snag. Four years (to date) over schedule and €4.6 billion over budget, Berlin's intended gateway to the world has been an unmitigated disaster.

The latest in a long line of design and management disasters is that 600 walls will have to be reinforced or ripped out and rebuilt to meet fire resistance standards.

Originally scheduled to open in 2011, and having missed four opening dates, the airport board have basically given up on putting a completion date on the thing – reports currently say mid-2017 at the earliest.

Like that back patio you started working on when John Howard was PM, it'll be done when it's done. Except, unlike BER, your incomplete patio probably doesn't suck €17 million from your wallet every month in maintenance costs or involve price fixing, bribery and otherwise bad corruption. And while your incomplete patio may not look the best, it does not occupy 1,470 ha of prime real estate in a European capital city and is unlikely to be damaging your city's economy or its international reputation.

Where to begin with how bad this project (Berlin airport, not the hypothetical patio) truly is...

Firstly, the guy hired to design the airport's fire protection system – the single system that has delayed the project the most – wasn't even a qualified engineer...he was a draughtsman. "Everyone thought I was an engineer", Alfredo di Mauro said, "I just didn't contradict them". Oh great. Luckily he wasn't in charge of anything important, like engineering a system designed to prevent the deaths of potentially thousands of people.

Oh. Wait.

The complete ineptitude of di Mauro, his designs AND the people who employed him cannot be overstated. The system he was supposed to implement was designed to funnel smoke below the terminal building in the event of a fire. Just think about that for a second. When you sit in front of a log fire, where does smoke go? Does it go down? Not usually. Not unless you're camping and had faaaarrrrrr too much weed. So here we had the unqualified di Mauro in charge of implementing a vital safety system that defied the laws of physics.


There is some architectural Magic Alex shit going on here, where someone convincingly claims they can build a thing that defies laws of physics, gets lots of money for it and then delivers, unsurprisingly, a system that doesn't work. This would be forgivable if you're a drug-addled rock star just wanting to give peace and 72-track recording studio a chance, but less so if you're planning a multi-billion dollar piece of infrastructure of international importance.

When inspectors tested the fire systems in 2011 – in preparation for a now hopelessly optimistic opening in 2012 – some alarms failed to activate and, goshdarn shockingly, the laws of physics defying smoke extraction system failed to extract smoke. The inspectors then had a closer look and found high-voltage power lines had been installed beside data and heating cables – a potentially disastrous design mistake if ever there was one.

But don't worry, the airport board proposed a most excellent stopgap solution: 800 minimum-wage workers armed with mobile phones – human fire detectors if you will – who would monitor the airport and, in the event of fire, presumably call a supervisor, yell „FEUR“ and direct passengers to the nearest exit. What could possibly go wrong? This "solution" was wisely rejected. And as if more things couldn't go wrong, the company hired to rectify the fire safety system, Imtech Deutschland, filed for bankruptcy in August.

So where to from here? Well, there are awesome tours of the unfinished airport that I imagine must be something like the lads from Top Gear driving chairs. I was kinda sad I missed out on enjoying one of these tours when I was last in Berlin. Something tells me I'll be able to go on one next time I'm there.

I'm not under the slightest illusion big projects such as an international airport are easy to manage. They clearly are not. But while they are complex, they should be feasible. This airport was definitely feasible. Sometimes projects run over budget and over schedule because of too much ambition or challenging engineering considerations – Santiago Calatrava's projects are perfect examples of these. Berlin Brandenburg Airport has none of this. Its design, while impressive, is not revolutionary nor is it construction difficult. Its calamitous errors are due solely to human error and mismanagement.

Add in to the mix the similarly disastrous Stuttgart21 project, and Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall and you've got a once-proud (if overstated) international reputation for efficiency and punctuality gravely damaged.

But why am I writing this? I guess because I really miss Germany at the moment, in particular Berlin. It sure isn't a perfect city, but every story that chinks away at the myth of German efficiency is, to my mind, a good thing. Nations are often built around such cultural nonsense which do nothing to enhance actual knowledge of a country. Take, for example, the "easy going" "mateship" of Australia. Just ask an American how "easy going" Australia seems after encountering our finest frontline Border Farce officers when entering the country. Destroying clichés is the first step to real engagement with a nation and its culture. I hope this bit of honesty regarding Germany's current horrendous major projects is a worthwhile glass of truth.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Irrational Exuberance of Papal Fever

Space Pope by lobs2 via deviantart

The United States is in the grips of an outbreak of Pontifcalitis (Papal Fever).

Symptoms include the suspension of rational thought, promotion of wilful ignorance, irrational exuberance, and taxpayer-funded events with a wanton disregard for the First Amendment (or similar local laws).

Papal Fever is common around the world when an old, white, male virgin (the head of an organisation that has, in the past, waged bloody wars and tortured unbelievers and to this day, protects men who rape children) visits a locality and waves to crowds from the comfort of his air-conditioned bullet-proof and blast-resistant vehicle.

He then proceeds to lecture audiences on helping the poor (even though his church is wealthy enough to have literally hundreds of millions of euros "tucked away"), sex (even though he is a virgin) and being nicer to immigrants (the Vatican City is probably the world's most difficult nation to gain citizenship of). The current outbreak of Papal Fever is not only confined to the United States and has been caused by apparent humility and goodwill of the current Pope.

Recommended treatment is some critical thinking and some hard facts:
  1. Despite his positive rhetoric, the Catholic church still actively obstructs non-church investigations into clergy abuse. 
  2. The Church still actively relocates pedophile priests.
  3. On this most recent trip to the US, the Pope praised bishops and empathised with them for their handling of abuse cases prior to meeting with a few abuse victims on the final day of the trip. Additionally, not all the victims he met were victims of clergy abuse.
  4. This Pope is no "radical", he is (unsurprisingly) a very conservative Catholic who says less-bad things than his predecessors and colleagues from time to time.
  5. The Pope stands by bishops' condemnation of abortion and gay marriage. 
If pain persists, use your brain.

Oh, and read this, the last thing I wrote about the current Pope.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

He went extinct for your sins

Download full resolution JPEG version

This humorous composite has been floating around the interwebs for a few years. Sometimes by itself, others with captions such as "Jesus Holding a Raptor – Your Argument is Invalid" or "Sorry, Rex. There's no room on the Ark for you."

Being a faithful Christian Pastafarian and fan of the Jurassic Park films, I thought I would show my commitment to the cause by making this image my Facebook profile picture, but aiii....I could not find any versions of sufficient resolution. So, off I went (well, I stayed exactly where I was, but you know what I mean) to find the original elements of the composite.

Turns out the original composite was done by a b3ta.com user Monty Propps in 2007 for a creationism Photoshop challenge. The original image is a painting by professional Jesus-depicter Del Parson called The Lost Lamb. Tell you what, if I was Jesus I would have skipped pre-literate Judea and skipped ahead to the social media age, but that's obviously just me.

The velociraptor depiction, however, ended up being the trickiest element to find. I cut it out of Monty Propps' original composite in the hope I could Google Image search the image. No luck. So I went with similar images and through some quirk of luck, found a low-resolution version of what appeared to be the original raptor image. I overlaid it with Propps' low-resolution original and found it to be a pretty good match. Turns out it's a promotional image from the aforementioned movie that made me a Pastafarian, Jurassic Park. You know, from when they used autoerotica animatronics instead of shitty CG Chris Pratts. Most intriguingly, I found that Monty Propps' bottom section of the "raptor" was indeed still the lamb, just colour matched with the raptor head and neck.

A couple of pterodactyls, two volcano elements and a few minutes later, we had a higher resolution composite. I am now happy to share it with the world. After all, He went extinct for our sins.

Original image, Del Parson The Lost Lamb
Original composite, b3ta.com user Monty Propps (2007)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A Skeptical Approach to Cameras or: An Ode to the Leica M4-2

Leica M4-2 by Andrew J. Cosgriff via Flickr

Originally published at richardmckenzie.com.au/words

If you've gone hunting for a decent hi-fi setup anytime over the past two decades, chances are you have come across publications such as What Hi-Fi or Stereophile and cooed over their adjective-laden reviews of high-end equipment you've never heard of, "must-have" accessories you'll never have and remastered audiophile albums you don't want to repurchase. These reviewers use the abstract and subjective as if they are measurable and quantifiable values; SI units of auditory measurement if you will. You've already settled for the $899 Panasonic job from JB Hi-Fi, but in the world of high-end hi-fi, dCS, Bryston, Continuum and Audioquest are the names to look out for.

"Audiophile" reviewers wax lyrical about an amplifier's "warmth" and "depth", or the improved "image focus" and increased "coherence" of a $750 USB cable, or a CD player's "righteous sense of musical flow". In this rarified world, it is self-evident that a $1190 RCA interconnect (or audio cable to us mere mortals) will produce "superior detail, clarity, timing precision, and image focus" and that such an exotic product – made from "tellurium-copper alloy" no less – is necessary for the best audio experience.

With seeming full sincerity, a $200,000 turntable is rated as possessing a greater "emotional majesty" that "sings" to the reviewer's heart: "When you hear the music [the turntable] lets escape from the grooves," the reviewer claims, "you, too, will be astounded and swept off your feet".

Except for the tiny problem that the vast majority of these reviews are guff. Non-scientific, non-measurable, emotional guff. While most consumer reviews have embraced the quantifiable and objective to test the efficacy of products (Video Card A runs Game B at 64 FPS; Computer X takes 56 sec to render Video Y), audiophile hi-fi regressed to a pre-scientific world view, preferring untestable subjectivity to measurable objectivity.

In the real world, this is simply not acceptable. A rational person, for instance, wouldn't take a drug because a doctor said it had "a more defined sense of certainty" than another. You would demand evidence of the drug's efficacy in comparison to others before swallowing it. Now, hi-fi might not be a matter of life or death, but many otherwise rational people are all-too willing to swallow the homeopathic audiophile hi-fi pill without thinking.

It was easy for me to laugh at the absurdity of high-end hi-fi's claims. I am a skeptic, and fiercely proud of it...but then I realised I had swallowed similar claims when purchasing my camera...

Leica Virgin

My Leica M4 and Voigtländer VCII Meter

It was 2009 and I was about to purchase my first Leica. Few brands are steeped in the as much myth and legend as Leica. Born in Germany, Leicas are regarded by many as the pinnacle of 35mm photography. As with audiophiles, Leica adherents are renowned for their devotion to the brand despite the many shortcomings of the products. Leica cameras and lenses, so the story goes, possess very special qualities not seen in other cameras. This is not entirely guff; objective measures of image quality often give Leica products close to full marks, but there are other less measurable qualities ascribed to Leica products we should be skeptical of.

When it came time to decide on which Leica M body to purchase, opinions were a dime a dozen, but the consensus from the "experts" was that the German-built Leica M4 was superior to the later Canadian-built M4-2 and M4-P models. Why? Do they hate Canadians? No, because according the experts, the Canadian models were constructed to "looser tolerances". What these tolerances were and how they affect one's photography or the operation of the camera is rarely quantified, but I trusted the "expert" opinion, so I avoided the Canadian models and bought a German-built M4.

With the benefit of experience and hindsight, I can now see the whole pro-German M4 thing as little more than a smear on the good name of the Ernst Leitz Canada (ELCAN) factory and its unbelievably talented staff. The amazing inventions and innovations of the ELCAN staff sadly do not receive their due credit in the history of Leica. ELCAN was pushing the technological boundaries of optics at a time when Leitz Wetzlar was focused on merely financial survival. The ELCAN team, led by legendary optical designer Walter Mandler, designed the very first Noctilux lens, envelope-pushing military lenses, IMAX projection lenses and groundbreaking Panavision optics. This was not some second-rate factory, it was the true innovation centre for Leica in the second half of the 20th century, right up until the early 1990s.

The ELCAN M4-2 and M4-P actually saved the Leica M as a product and possibly Leitz (now Leica) as a company. A bit of history: after the successful M4, Leica released the unloved Leica M5. Although it was the most technically advanced Leica M to date, the M5 was a sales flop that caused Leitz to discontinue the M line and focus on SLRs. That's right, the now iconic Leica M product line was discontinued. After the discontinuation, the folks at ELCAN suggested to German management that they could produce a more economical version of the M4 in Canada. Leitz approved a limited number, but demand was greater than expected, thus the M4-2 was born.

So were there actual problems with the M4-2's more "economical" construction? Well, kind of. Like many new products, there were problems with first batches. The viewfinder was more prone to flare than previous models owing to the removal of a condenser, and some metal and brass parts were replaced with plastic parts. In most cases this substitution made no difference, however some parts were demonstrably less robust than their metallic predecessors. Many of the other cost-saving changes were cosmetic or had little effect on the usability of the camera, such as the stamped Leitz name on the top plate (replacing the engraving of previous models) or the removal of the self-timer (I've used mine once).

What of "looser tolerances"? Production methods did actually change. The time consuming "adjust and fit" method of bespoke production was substituted for a more modern and economical production line mode of manufacture. Thus the tolerance claims are true to a certain extent, although the effect on the final product was minimal. This was a new workforce building a new camera on a new production line and what mistakes they made were quickly rectified. And don't forget that all the tooling to build the M4 was transferred from Wetzlar to Canada – that's no small task so it would be more of a shock if there weren't issues. These cost-cutting measures, practical though they were, add up in some minds to the Leica M4-2 being somehow a "lesser" Leica than the German-built models that preceded it, even though today, a well-kept Canadian M4-2 or M4-P operates just as reliably as any other Leica.

I asked a photographer friend of mine, Andrew Cosgriff for his thoughts on using the Leica M4-2 and the German-built Leica M6: "The truth (for me) was that it still felt like everything a Leica was meant to feel like. You could sit there and wind it all day, because it felt so good. I loved how the M4-2 had absolutely no extraneous features, compared to other cameras I owned, most of which seemed to have a few extra knobs and dials that I never found myself using."

And of the obviously superior German-built M6? Did it feel better because Germany?

"Nope. Winding it on felt just as good, and the meter was a convenience (now, 4 years later, a crutch) rather than a necessity. Both of them are still Leicas, and for me they both exude the qualities we’ve come to expect from that name."

And this is where we should take a moment to step back from inherited opinions that are told and retold enough for them to become fact. A photograph is not only the product of a camera, it's the lens, the chosen medium and most importantly, the person behind the camera. It is highly-unlikely that the camera body will be the weakest link in the process that is photography. Sure, you may be affected by the "cost-cutting" roots of the Leica M4-2, that somehow it's not a "real" Leica, but I would suggest that's more in your head than in the product.

Similarly with hi-fi equipment, the biggest change you can make to improve your audio experience is to fix up your listening environment, not demagnitise your discs and replace all of your audio cables with unobtanium-plated interconnects. Alas, there's no $1400 product to sell to support the moving of speakers a few feet one way or another (although I'm sure there are a few less-scrupulous companies out there willing to give it a try...have you heard of the BS Technology Pro Grip Finger Protectors FAP-1020 that discharge dangerous static before coming into contact with your precious hi-fi equipment?).

Above the din of their scorn, many Leicaphiles forget that without the M4-2 and M4-P, Leica might not exist today. ELCAN designed and produced the finest rangefinder lenses and kept the Leica M line alive at a time when its German parent company wanted little to do with such outmoded technology. Yes, there were differences with the construction of the M4-2 compared to previous models and, yes, some of the changes were designed to cut costs, but a good M4-2 is no less usable than a good M4. Leica's focus on SLRs would eventually falter, with their R SLR cameras never achieving the same prominence (or sales) as the Leica M lineup. Leica finally discontinued the R series in 2009; the M series continues strongly to this day. Had Leica given up entirely on the M, the company probably wouldn't be around today.

The more economic methods of production perfected in Canada informed the creation of the Leica M6 and helped allow production to finally move back to Germany in the 1980s. Today, the Leica M forms the core of a resurgent Leica Camera AG, thanks in large part to the foresight and passion of Leitz workers at the ELCAN factory who kept the iconic rangefinder alive.

I've learned my lesson. Next time, I'll be a bit more skeptical of the received wisdom of the internets, of forum users with 10,000+ posts and of claims without assertions. Had I followed this course of action in 2009, I might have saved myself quite a bit of money. Should I need to replace my M4 for whatever reason, I'll be more than happy to "take the risk" with a Leica M4-2 and ELCAN's wares...just like the US Navy did, just like the US Army did, just like Panavision did, just like IMAX did and just like Leitz did.


Thanks to Andrew for his musings on the Leica M4-2 and M6 cameras. You can see more of his awesome photography on Flickr.

The inspiration for this article came, in part, from Peter Johansen's post A Brief Guide to Audio for the Skeptical Consumer on his blog Numeral Nine Music and Audio.

For an overview on the amazing accomplishments of the ELCAN operation, take a look at Ernst Leitz Canada Limited on the LEICA Barnack Berek Blog.

Notes: It is incredibly difficult to find advertising materials for the Leica M4-2. I have a few brochures in my collection for the M4-P, but none for the Leica M4-2. The internet wasn't much help either, I could not find a single digitised ad for the M4-2. Sad face.


Before reading the exciting sequel, re-acquaint yourself with the original #libspill

I just wanted to offer a few observations on the events of the past 24 hours. It has been a very interesting time for politics tragics like myself and will only become more intriguing as events continue to unfold...

It Begins and Ends With A Spill
September 17, 2008. The heady days of the Rudd government before future events would irrevocably designate them the "Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years". News was still consumed in printed paper form and available at retail outlets called "newsagents", along with an assortment of magazines, stationary, lottery tickets and remainder paperbacks.

I was sitting in the Knox City Shopping Centre food court before my shift at Ted's Camera Stores reading about the life and times of the newly-elected leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull. Even as a Labor supporter with our very own Teflon®-coated Labor PM in office, I had a certain amount of respect for Turnbull and thought: "damn, he's going to be the next PM."

Hindsight demonstrates this was not to be. Being more young and naive then than now, I assumed political parties to be more monolithic than not, that the Liberal Party would fall in behind Turnbull and that would be that. This is the mistake most people make to this day when discussing politicians and parties: parties are not monolithic entities, they are swirling, amorphous entities led by strong personalities and driven by conflicting ideas.

While complaints were made about Turnbull's non-consultative leadership style, it was primarily his non-flat earther policies on issues such as climate change that proved fatal to his leadership. The "big C" conservatives within the Liberal Party mounted a failed challenge to Turnbull in the party room, before many resigned en-masse from the shadow cabinet forcing a spill that cost Turnbull the leadership.

Labor MPs I've chatted to about the aforementioned Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years talk about the two Rudd prime ministerships as if they were led by different people. Rudd 1.0 didn't want to know you as a petty backbencher. He was rude, abrasive, egotistical and a manic micromanager. Rudd 2.0, on the other hand, could not have been more helpful, eager to appear in electorates and support local campaigns, always available for a chat and generally not a dick. How much of Rudd 2.0 would have survived had Labor won in 2013 is impossible to tell, but there was a very real change in the man who would be PM.

The question Liberal MPs would have grappled with over the past 24 hours is whether Turnbull, like Rudd 2.0, has learned from his previous experience as leader. I suspect Turnbull would have made this pitch to the party, promising to be more consultative and more sensitive to the party. Like with Rudd 2.0, only time will tell whether this promise

Labor's Next Federal Election Just Got a LOT Harder...but there are implications for the Liberals too...
Let's face it: Tony Abbott was the Labor Party's greatest electoral asset. Compared to Abbott, Bill Shorten looked like a leader, a Prime Minister-in-waiting. Turnbull's elevation has changed everything. It's a bit like when you go hiking in the Australian "Alps" and then visit Austria. Sure, Mt. Kosciuszko is nice and all, but until a few decades ago, you could virtually drive to the top of it. The Austrian Alps, on the other hand, offer a plethora of very large peaks, ample ski fields, wonderful scenery and Bergbahnen (mountain trains).

What am I trying to say? I don't know. I like mountains and while Mt. Kosciuszko is big compared to, I dunno, Mt. Dandenong (or Mt. Lofty, or Mt. Coot-tha, or insert localised mountain here), it's nothing compared to the Austrian Alps. Is Turnbull the Austrian Alps of this awkward and poorly thought-out attempt at an analogy, and Shorten Mt. Kosciuszko, lacking in Bergbahnen, wonderful scenery, but otherwise serviceable as a mountain peak? Perhaps. Time will tell, but the hatred for Abbott in the electorate that has so far sustained Labor's two-party lead is likely to evaporate, at least in the short term. Labor will now try and link Turnbull, as senior cabinet minister, to the poisonous legacy of the Abbott prime ministership. This has begun already. None of this, however, should come as a shock to Labor strategists. There was always a chance this would occur and I imagine (and hope) Labor campaign plans have factored in the possibility of a leadership change.

But it's not all smooth sailing for the Liberals. Turnbull is undeniably popular in the electorate, but unfortunately for him, a sizeable portion of his popularity lies with people who vote Labor or Green anyway. The close outcome of the leadership vote reveals a divided party, largely (but not exclusively) between the "big C" conservatives who killed the first Turnbull Experiment and small-l liberals. How Turnbull manages the divide and whether the vanquished behave themselves will determine the success or otherwise of the Turnbull Experiment 2.0. What has been notable is those spruiking for Turnbull have been at pains to point out that he will be a "more collegiate" leader, keen to broadcast a positive message to the party faithful and to place Turnbull on notice that his leadership will be closely monitored.

There is a great deal of risk here to Turnbull. Those in #QANDALand have built up an image of Turnbull as a saviour; a progressive, intelligent and articulate intellectual who will return Australia to some imagined glorious past where leaders loftily debated policies and ideas. Turnbull, even without having to contend with the social conservatives in his party, is unlikely to meet this progressive ideal. By trying to please both the party and the electorate, he runs the double risk of disappointing #QANDALand by not being progressive enough and the conservatives within the Liberal Party by being too moderate.

For every happy burgher of Wentworth interviewed on ABC News 24, there are multiple electors elsewhere, probably unhappy with this leadership "change". I can't see this leadership "coup" being anywhere as damaging to the Liberal Party as Rudd's toppling was to Labor in 2010, which means there should be some "clear air" for the government, so long as everyone behaves themselves.

Self-Interest Rules All
Anti-Turnbull Liberal MPs were faced with two choices last night: continue on with an ideologically-aligned, ultimately hapless leader who would likely lead them to electoral oblivion, or stomach a Turnbull leadership that offered the possibility of electoral success. They chose the latter, with self-interest ruling all.

People Still Don't Understand Our Political System
Cue leadership change; cue the inevitable "person-on-the-street" vox pop and the incessant "I voted for Tony and now he's been torn down by the party". You'd think after three leadership coups, people would have learned how our system works. Come election time, we vote for our local member and not the party leader. The party that wins a majority of seats forms government, and that party's leader becomes Prime Minister. The party leadership is then a plaything of the party, whether we like it or not.

Public understanding of the system is not helped when hot-air populists lecture politicians on, well, politics without actually understanding the fundamentals of the system.

"Not sure about you sitting at home, but we're fed up with this. Have we, the people, become irrelevant? This country has become an embarrassment when it comes to leadership" - Karl#Libspill #Today9
Posted by TODAY on Monday, 14 September 2015

Liberal Conservatives Invoke the "Broad Church" Myth When it's Convenient For Them
I've written previously about the myth of the "broad church", that the Liberal Party accommodates two competing ideological strands, social conservatism and liberalism, in the one party. The social conservative strand has been in the ascendency ever since Howard took the Liberal leadership in 1995. As a result, moderates increasingly found themselves on the outer. Turnbull's loss of the leadership in 2009 on reinforced the power of the "big C" Conservatives within the party.

Now potentially on the outer under a Turnbull prime ministership, noted social conservative and all-round weird churchy guy Kevin Andrews went on breakfast TV today to "remind" certain elements of the Liberal Party that it is, indeed, a "broad church". This time, the "broad church" appeal was directed at moderates to remind them that weird churchy guys like him, who have held sway for two decades, are still there and need a say...even though their leadership over the past two years has been ruinous for the Liberal Party and the country. Watch this space.

Jeff Kennett Has Curiously Non-Existent Sense of Irony
The former Victorian premier whored himself out to virtually every media outlet yesterday to let his feelings known that Turnbull was a wrecker, an egotist and the "Rudd" of the Liberal Party. He did this with a straight face. Anyone who was alive in Victoria in the 1990s knows Kennett is probably the most arrogant, egotistical figure the Liberal Party has ever produced, with only Howard in his last 12 months as PM coming close to Kennett levels of popular disconnect and hubris. This arrogance saw both Kennett and Howard meet their political end at the hands of the electorate.

The NBN Still Sucks
Australia ranks 44th in global internet speeds according to Akamai. For a man who "practically" invented the internet in Australia, Turnbull has done little to improve the situation. Only 2 years ago, Australia was on track to have a truly world-class broadband network. This achievable dream is now in tatters, torn up by the now Prime Minister of Australia, in pursuit of affordable mediocrity that has now suffered a $15bn blowout. This is Turnbull's most visible legacy as Minister for Communications and his biggest failure. This is important because for all Turnbull's popularity and charisma, his policy work in communications was dreadful. One journalist in the know, Renai LeMay of Delimiter calls Turnbull "Australia's worst ever Communications Minister" – quite a claim when the competition includes luddite Richard Alston.

All this is vital, because as Turnbull talks up the "future", using buzzwords like "innovation" and "technology", his ministerial record shows he has done all in his power to ensure Australia remains a technological backwater.

In Conclusion
Watch this space...but not in 4K because internet speeds.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Free Trade? You've VOD to be Kidding

© Magnolia Pictures
Alex Gibney, the noted documentary maker whose impressive oeuvre includes Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has a new movie out today.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine takes what senior Apple executive Eddy Cue called an "inaccurate and mean-spirited" approach to its subject, eschewing the usual hagiographic tendencies of recent book and film profiles of Jobs. In short, it takes a "genius and jerk" view of Steve Jobs that has been only hinted at so far, providing some much-needed critical balance to the available accounts of his life

Impressively, Gibney and the film's producer, Magnolia Pictures, have opted for a same-day cinema and Video On Demand release, meaning viewers have the choice to watch at the cinema, or rent and download in the comfort of your own home. That is, unless, you're outside of the United States. If you're unlucky enough to exist outside the reality distortion field that is the USA, you will likely be presented with this should you wish to purchase the film:


Magnolia Pictures VOD

In a regression to the physical world, corporate entities still insist on imposing geographic blocks on content that is downloaded as a bit-for-bit identical copy no matter its physical location. While our politicians hurriedly conclude free trade agreements that claim to have benefits for our farmers and physical exporters, they seem to neglect the trade in data; of discriminatory pricing and access limitations imposed on Australian consumers for digital goods for no good (or defensible) reason. The digital economy, which our pollies love to say "is Australia's future", seems strangely neglected by them when it comes to putting their rhetoric into action.

Attorney-General Bookshelves Brandis and "Practical Inventor of the Internet" Malcolm Turnbull have done little to encourage greater access to the world of digital goods, preferring to impose draconian data retention laws and siding with the movie studios – instead of consumers – on issues of "illegal" downloading. As has been repeated ad nauseum by anyone with a tablet and internet account, making content available in a timely and affordable manner does more to prevent piracy than any demonstrably ineffective "three-strikes" policy ever could. As the long-overdue arrival of Netflix et al. to local shores has shown, Australians are willing to pay for a quality service when one is offered.

My international relations lecturer was always fond of saying "there's no such thing as free trade – only slightly freer trade". This is as true now as then. Free trade deals, as negotiated by our governments, only deal with a very limited number of import/export areas where (usually marginal) benefit can be extracted for both parties. While free trade agreements have been effective at removing (some) tariffs for physical goods, digital goods are largely neglected.

This film is just one example of where our digital world, as advanced as it is, lags far behind our expectations of it, with most of our politicians lagging even farther behind still (honourable mentions to Ed Husic and the other members of the IT Pricing Inquiry) I was a willing customer, ready to pay to watch this film. Unlike some, I believe the creators of our content deserve fair and equitable recompense for the labours...but they're making it harder – not easier – to make this possible.