Monday, 27 December 2010

It really isn’t just the GST Gerry …

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how some retailers here in Australia were complaining that they were losing sales to overseas online retailers as overseas tax retailers were cheaper as they didn’t charge GST, and that Australian customers were legally avoiding GST due to Australia’s generous tax free allowance of $1000 per transaction for goods ordered from overseas.

Well I’ve just had a concrete example of the fact that it’s not just GST. We wanted to buy a high quality A3 inkjet for photographic prints.

After checking some websites, including, we settled on the Epson Stylus R2880. does not ship printers to Australia so we used to search for an Australian retailer.

And this is where the prices speak for themselves:

Amazon price (GBP) Amazon price equivalent (AUD) Shopbot price (AUD)
inc VAT/GST as appropriate 450 720 1150
tax free 383 613 1045

assuming an exchange rate of GBP1.00 = AUD 1.60, a VAT rate of 17.5% in the UK and 10% GST in Australia, and rounding to the nearest whole currency unit. Prices as found on 27/12/2010.

And basically what they tell us is that either Amazon is ridiculously cheap or Australian retailers are stupidly expensive. We did check a few other UK retailers and we did find that Amazon were quite cheap, but that none of the big retailers were much over GBP500/AUD800 inclusive of VAT.

Incidentally the same’s not true of an iPad – the worldwide tax free price is more or less the same round the world, if one looks at the mail order Apple store prices.

Given that the printers are manufactured in Asia, I doubt if shipping costs are much of a factor. Basically, even paying GST, it’s much cheaper to buy a printer from overseas. Whether this is due to retailers gouging the market, or importers using an unfair exchange rate is anyone’s guess, but if Apple can do it, why can’t others?

[update 05/01/2011 - without going through the whole rigmarole again we've found that Canon A3 Pixma's are relatively cheap from, although relatively cheap means a $150 premium over the UK mail order price before takeing VAT versus GST into account ...]

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

media consumption 2010

Way back in January I worked out that we were spending around $1000 a year on print media, and that if we canned all the print media we'd have enough money to buy an ipad and some content subscriptions.

We are of course possibly unique in that we never bought the ipad but we did cancel the print media subscriptions - in reality due to my increasing irritation with the Canberra Times and the fact I simply wasn't reading the New Scientist any more rather than any great urge to worship at the cult of Saint Steven.

And how did it go?

Well, we'd kept the Guardian Weekly and Weekend Australian in the hope of slow and lazy Saturdays when you had the time to read the papers properly.

We've also got to confess to finding ourselves picking up free copies of the Canberra Times from Ziggy's or Wiffen's in the market on Saturday, but we can rationalise that.

What we did find is that we missed a morning paper, even though we just skimmed it. I found myself taking my coffee into the study for 10 minutes to start on working through the day's email before driving into work.

So when the Australian came up with a cheap summer deal for home delivery for uni staff I signed up for it, and well, it confirms we're hopelessly addicted to a daily paper. The major difference is that instead of being irritated by the vapidity and superficiality of the CT I now get annoyed by the right wing economic and political stance of the Oz.

J instead merely complains about having the syndicated London Times crossword instead of the Manchester Guardian one, and continues to pine for the Age, which you can't get on subscription in Canberra.

So I guess we're newspaper readers. What we'll do when the Oz summer subscription runs out is anyone's guess.

What is interesting is that at the same time I've basically given up listening to podcasts. Much as I enjoy talk radio, I've been finding it difficult to find time to listen properly - I think I havn't listened to From our own Correspondent as a podcast for about six months now, and have only managed one episode of the iPlayer version of I Claudius.

Reading and TV provide our downtime recreation, and strangely not because of the extra channels that have come with the digital switchover. I guess we're just simply reading more ....

email as a sign of fogeydom ....

According to an article in the New York Times, enjoying using email is a sign you're well on the way to becoming an old fart.

Personally, I'm not convinced. Now while I sent my first email message some time around 1978, I never started using email seriously until 1986 or thereabouts. No one much to email you see.

However I've used it extensively since then, but apparently I'm now an old bastard for doing so. That may well be the case but email has for me always had the advantage of asychronicity - so that being a store and forward solution it works well when you deal routinely with people in other time zones, as well as providing a nice little audit trail.

And while I've use instant messaging across timezones, it doesn't work so well when your fellow IM-er is nine timezones away - you kind of need to have someone who's awake to interact with.

So, I don't think that using email is a sign of incipient senility, what it means is that you have a requirement for asychronous communication, be it with colleagues in different timezones or even just being able to send a message out of hours to Parks and Wildlife about a typo in the rego number on our new National Parks sticker (we bought new sticker for our new car, and they helpfully transferred the balance from our previous vehicle and in the process of the update, well Q is next to W on the keyboard ...).

What the story does show is that the iGeneration typically has a small circle of acquaintences, mostly in the same locale, that they text to about parties, meetups, school and such like. They use text because it's cheap to use, and so naturally make the switch to text like messaging on Facebook.

They need instant response.

An example. If you want to know if someone fancies a beer after work, you're more likely to text them than email them, especially if they're in the next building and you're not sure if they're in this afternoon. On the whole you don't want a reply in three days time - the moment has passed.

Twitter originally looked like it would turn into a service to broadcast social updates. So rather than SMS half a dozen people about you're sudden deep fascination for a middy of VB, you would tweet your followers about your sudden craving. Facebook messaging sans Facebook.

But, interestingly, twitter hasn't turned out like that. While people do use the direct message feature as an SMS replacement (I'm on the train!) it's clear that people are mostly either using it as a curated RSS feed of interesting links, such as my own (@moncur_d) or as a status update service (@UoYITservices as an example) or for live blogging events such as press conferences and presentations.

Twitter has turned into a curated broadcast service. You follow Fred because he has a knack of posting interesting things about papyrology, you don't follow Debbie, even though you're friends with her, as she doesn't post stuff you find interesting, and you while you don't follow qantas you always do a search to check for flight delay notices ...

So, in short, the key take aways are (a) that the communication media used are a reflection of people's lives, and that as people get older they have more and more professional and non social interactions, that require a communications medium that is both asysnchronous, and traceable. Not so much "I'm on the train" and more "I'm on the train and being looking at your project design and ....", and (b) the communications medium used is appropriate to the purpose of the communication.

Friday, 17 December 2010

yahoo to close delicious

There are suggestions that Yahoo are to close delicious, the social bookmarking service.

I, for one, would be disappointed, as I use it to bookmark interesting items for either professional or private research.

And this neatly exposes a problem with the use of free online cloud services in the support of academia. They can go away, leaving one with a whole heap of nothing. Just as wikileaks has shown us how the cloud is not content neutral, this shows us that it is not immune from commercial pressures.

So should we stop using the cloud?

No it's too damn useful for enabling collaboration. And building our own private cloud isn't necessarily the answer - governments can (and do) cut funding as viciously as commercial organisations do.

The answer is to (a) have multiple online stores as far as is possible, and (b) to store the content in open formats as much as possible to allow content to be downloaded and reloaded as easily as possible. That way we have an escape route if a particular service dies on us, yet saves us from the risks of having everything stored on a single machine that dies on you.

Of course, if like me you're not anally retentive enough to do your own proper backups you will always be at risk. The simplest answer to this is a vendor and platform agnostic dropbox style service that copies working files between your home and office machines, and also stores them on the web, be it an academic data fabric or a commercial service such as skydrive ...

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Clouds, chrome and wikileaks

Cloud computing is seductive. And useful.

The moment you find yourself wanting to share data with someone else, or yourself between home and work. you need a location to store it that's accessible by those you're sharing with.

In the old days we stuck our data on a corporate server somewhere inside the firewall, and when we wanted to share data copied our files to a password protected ftp area. And it worked. And the ftp server in time became a web server and it continued to work

But in the meantime something happened. Applications became bigger. Hard disks became bigger, and laptops became more portable, meaning they moved about more including outside the firewall.

And because you couldn't provide an instant always on disk mount across the firewall people started storing documents on their laptops. Good conscientious people always synced them to some sort of central repository, but we're all human.

So organisations started becoming serverless, or more accurately fileserverless. Database servers were always with us but all that unstructured information was on people's laptops.

Not backed up. Not easily shareable.

Cloud computing seemed to be an answer to this. Put your documents on the cloud. Share them as you want. And use the light weight apps provided when you're using a netbook or other low powered machine (eg an ipad) and don't have the editing tools to hand.

And it's truly excellent. No more messing with versions and connections, or finding that the file is on a machine that's powered off. I use and like this a lot.

But ...

One bugbear is security - you're trusting someone else to control access to your data the way you want. This is the nub of Richard Stallman's gripe about chrome. Like a lot of Stallman's gripes, it's undoubtedly true, but as we all can't have a firewalled fully patched server in the garage or the skills or time to maintain it - one has to be practical.

Not being in the habit of storing pornographic images or developing plans to burn down buildings I'm relaxed if the security sometimes gets a little lax. I'm even reasonably relaxed if you saw a pdf of my credit card statement, or bank statement, or phone bill. I'd be angry if you could, but I doubt if much harm could come of it.

Probably all you could tell is that we have a revolving mortgage, we buy food, petrol, books and clothes, make phone calls and have friends in the UK, NZ and the US. The information gained is nothing I wouldn't tell a friend, and I don't think the men in funny shoes could make me into a criminal mastermind on the basis of the online information.

We of course don't keep the user ids and passwords online. We do have an encrypted cd and memory stick of things like that, including scanned passport pages, and a few sentimental documents and pictures, just in case the nature reserve on the hill above us ever caught fire and we had a bushfire emergency. Our escape plan involves grabbing a netbook, cd, memory stick, mobile phone and cat.

I also assume that my doctor and dentist store all my medical data securely.

So, cloud computing is useful and providing one makes a value judgement about the risks, secure. The same goes for the majority of corporate documents online. If you're sensible a security breach is annoying. But then you face the same problem if someone steals your laptop, or a memory stick, or whatever. I remember once having to explain to the bank that there were unencrypted copies of faxes (ok it was a few years ago) with credit card numbers on a laptop that went walkabout. Not a pleasant experience, though the bank were fine about it.

The danger with chrome, and other cloud only solutions, is that everything is online and people might start inadvertantly putting things they shouldn't online.

The question, as in the outsourcing student email question is whether the consequences of a leak are bad, and is it more likely to happen with an outsourced service than an internally run service.

The wikileaks saga shows us something else. It shows us that cloud data can be taken offline by the providers. Most commercial usage agreements say that you can't post nasty stuff and we can take your account offline for a whole lot of reasons. Now we might agree about not breaching copyright, and not posting live chicken action movies, but basically when we give our data to a service provider, we're saying look after this, try not to lose it or share it with anyone we don't like, but otherwise - hey, it's cool.

So wikileaks was taken offline due to external pressure from the US government. That's fine.
All that happens is that wikileaks is so high profile half a dozen mirrors spring up in other jurisdictions, and the US government looks foolish.

Now suppose I'm not high profile, but have outspoken views about conserving native forest. This embarasses the state government so they get a court order to stop me posting pictures of a protest online where not everything was carried out by the book. For example, people were a little more rough than they could have been removing protesters.

And they then go to flickr and the like and ask them to pull my account. Perhaps they suggest I also have an unnatural interest in chickens. And because I'm unimportant my account gets pulled.

And if I have my own local backup of my cloud data I can find someone else to host, make cd's of the pictures and hand them out, or whatever.

If I don't and everything's on the cloud I'm just a bitter and twisted loony ...

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

2010 - what worked

Last year, I did an end of year post on what worked for me in 2009. Here's what worked for me in 2010:

Windows 7

I was a really reluctant convert to Windows 7. Having been a Linux and OS X user for years I felt kind of dirty going back to Microsoft. But, it's like driving a Holden - they're pretty good these days, and kind of fun ...

Microsoft OneNote

I've tried various notebooking applications over they years, and the only one that (used) to work for me was Tranglos Keynote. I've found Microsoft OneNote a really good snippet catcher, and I find being able to add from the web via OneNote Live and sync with your desktop notebook a killer feature. Certainly helped power my Sighelm obsession


The other powerhouse in the Sighelm obsession. This is the year I really 'got' the flexibility of being able not only to create, maintain and edit documents but to share the editing

Nokia E63 push email

I found this absolutely invaluable when travelling as away of keeping up and doing quick email responses when using a laptop was difficult (no free wifi, etc, etc) and unlike some other devices, it's not anything near chatty enough to blow your data budget when travelling

Ubuntu 10.10

it works, and it's really good. It's a toss up between Ubuntu 10.10 and Windows 7 as to which makes me more productive

Cloud services

Windows Live Skydrive, Google Docs, all these services that let you create, maintain and store documents remotely have really helped this year, making it easy to build and maintain a portfolio of working documents and backgrounders on line and accessible from anywhere. Coupled with One Note and wikidot, invaluable.

Still delivering...

Cooler e-reader

still wonderful, light and versatile with wonderful battery life

Asus Netbook

Still good, and as my dash to Providence showed, light weight, reliable, versatile, and coupled with cloud services. highly effective

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Nennius and data archiving

Nennius has always been neglected in the history of archiving.

As a monk writing some time in the ninth century he put together a History of the Britons based on the sources he could find, some of which are now lost, and yet shamefacedly confessed in the introduction " ...have undertaken to write down some extracts that the stupidity of the British cast out; for the scholars of the island of Britain had no skill, and set down no record in books. I have therefore made a heap of all that I have found ..."

Whether Nennius existed, whether his History of the Britons was his work or the work of several authors, are open questions.

And what has this to do with me?

Well, I've started a new project on a datset archiving and publication solution, and to accompany the project I've set up a blog as a sort of commonplace book to capture relevant background information. And the blog of course needed a both a name and a url, so, while the name is fairly boring, the url remembers that monk or monks trying to capture what information he could -

Sunday, 5 December 2010


I am not going to comment on the morality of wikileaks actions or on the correctness or otherwise of the withdrawal of wikileaks' hosting services, paypal account or otherwise. We're all adults and we can make up our own minds

What I am going to say is that governments, good or bad have, until now, maintained themselves in part by controlling access to information and dissembling when advantageous. Some more than others, and of course not all governments are bad, in the same way that not all people are bad.

But governments do lie to their people.

To quote one of my great-uncles on why, as an 18 year old, he volunteered for the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front in the Second World War: 'They told us we were winning'.

(For his pains he ended up being captured during the retreat from Stalingrad and spent the rest of the war in a labour camp in Siberia before being sent home to help build socialism in the GDR.)

Wikileaks has killed secrecy. Much as in the same way privacy has diminished with the advent of social networking so has secrecy. It is simply much more difficult to keep secrets on an online connected world.

This can be both good and bad. In the same way that twitter has allowed both student protesters in the UK to organise, and Iranian protesters get the message out, the advent of these technologies changes the game, and rather than wring our hands we need to adapt and move on.

Friday, 3 December 2010

snow and student protests in the age of twitter

An interesting little phenomenon - in this week's UK snow lots of people have posted photos of the snow, including crowded buses, iced trains and snow bound freeways.

The same is happening with the recent UK student protests - not just informally organised via twitter and facebook but pictures posted and made available online giving the lie to any 'official' images of the evenments.

We of course saw a similar phenomenon after the rigged election in Iran, and while we have to be careful to guard against both the picture takers and gallery/collection assemblers selecting images that support a particular view, it is nevertheless an interesting phenomenon. Everyone has a phone, every phone has a camera.

Power may not have fallen into the streets, but control of information is certainly heading that way ...

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Evidence of connection ii

I recently railed about the compartmentalised view of history in which societies are viewed as separate entitities and the connections between them de-emphasised.

Of course societies have always been connected by trade and the like, one need only look at the spread of lapis lazuli, found only in Afghanistan, around the world.

My original post fired off a minor enthusiasm about whether an anglo saxon cleric called Sighelm ever went to India and from that I've found a bigger more interesting puzzle - assuming that he did go all the way to India - how did he get there?

The answer is of course obvious - he followed one of the well established spice trading routes, either via Baghdad and the Gulf, or via Alexandria and the Red Sea, or even, more exotically by following the silk route to Samarkand and then across the Karakorum and Hindu Kush to India.

All of these were well established routes, and ones which have persisted up to recent times, to the latter half of the twentieth century.

It's only with divisions of recent times caused by the advent of Stalin's Soviet Union, the wars in Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution and the war in Iraq that these traditional trade routes have been disrupted. These long, hard, journeys would have seemed perfectly sensible to a nineteenth century Russian or or an early twentieth century British traveller - after all Eric Newby travelled overland to the Hindu Kush, as did Robert Byron to Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet.

And, I've always been quietly amazed by the fact that Agatha Christie travelled with her husband, Max Mallowan, to his dig in Nineveh by train. Not because of the length of the journey, but because it was possible - Orient Express to Istanbul, and then on across Syria via Aleppo and on to Iraq on the Baghdad railway.

And of course it seemed perfectly sensible to British colonial administrators to govern the Trucial states from India and to use the Indian Rupee as a currency not only in the Gulf, Aden and Oman, but also in the British colonies in East Africa, and when one sees Kenyan security guards in a Dubai shopping mall it seems as if the wheel has turned full circle.

A consequence of the divisions of the last fifty or sixty years is that we have become extraordinarily ignorant of the cultures and history of central asia and the role of these cultures in mediating the trade between India, China and the west, be it Byzantium. Rome, or late medieval Europe.

As a for instance, a story periodically surfaces that there are the descendants of one of Crassus's lost legion living in a village of western China. Now it has been claimed population in Lanzhou area had caucasian characteristics and DNA studies do confirm that western DNA markers are present.

Lanzhou is traditionally the endpoint of the silk route through Xianjang to Urumqi, so other opportunities for irregular unions (and western looking babies) doubtless presented themselves due to passing western traders. It's also worth not forgetting that the original Tokharian population of the area were caucasian in appearance.

Equally, because the area is not that far from Bactria it's not impossible that Crassus' legion myth had some basis in fact and that some Roman trained soldiers (or their descendants) ended up in Xianjiang, and that the story was perpetuated to explain occasional western looking babies born in villages.

The other key thing about these trade routes is that they are persistent. Again an anecdote.

In 2002 I was sitting in a roadside cafe in northern Greece close to the Albanian border. As I sipped my coffee a convoy of old Albanian-registered Mercedes sedans, loaded up with an extraordinary range of domestic paraphenalia and packing cases drove past, heading back towards Albania while an Iranian truck went past in the opposite direction.

At the time I said something flippant about the Albanian mafia going shopping in Istanbul, but I was probably more than a little right, but what I actually saw was a traditional trade route re-establishing itself...

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