Short Sydney trip day 3: Geeks galore

Posted 27/11/2015. Back-dated.

The third and final day of my obsessively-blogged short trip to Sydney, and it was destined to be pretty geeky. After breakfast and checking out, we caught a train to Penshurst (changing at Wolli Creek, which I assume is a pretty new interchange station), then a walk in the sun to The Gamesmen, a shop we’d run out of time to visit on Saturday. It had a pretty neat mini-museum/shop of retro games, though as Isaac remarked afterwards, the things he was most interested in buying weren’t for sale.

Display in The Gamesmen, Penshurst, NSW

From there we caught a train back into the CBD, hopped off at Town Hall and wandered around the central shopping area, cutting through the very impressive QV building and heading up George Street, which was partially closed due to light rail construction.

We looked inside the Apple Store in George Street. Melbourne CBD doesn’t yet have one of these, and it’s a different beast to the suburban Apple stores. Apple obviously has made an attempt to make this something of a geek landmark, all gleaming metal and glass.

And like Apple’s interfaces, there’s a minimalist design inside, which doesn’t tell you what’s up on the next level — you’ll just have to click, I mean climb and go and find out. The stairs were weirdly silver metal, like walking around inside a giant Apple computer.

Apple Store, SydneyMicrosoft Store, Sydney

Broken down laptop in the Microsoft Store, Sydney

In nearby Pitt Street, we found the Microsoft Store, also unknown in Melbourne. It’s like they tried to copy the Apple Store, but ended up with something not quite as fashionable. Both stores had helpers in red t-shirts. Hopefully that’s not redshirts in a Star Trek sense. And typical Microsoft, one of the laptops on display had stopped and was in Repair mode.

We found some lunch in one of the shopping centres, then took a look in the very grand Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. It was okay, but I think not as interesting as the Art Gallery of NSW which I visited last year.

The weather was glorious as we wandered around the Quay, stopping to buy ice-creams at some place called Royal Copenhagen, though Princess Mary didn’t seem to be in attendance.

The previous night we’d noticed one huge cruise ship in port. Today a completely different cruise ship was docked — a P & O liner — it turned out the next day P & O had no less than five cruise ships in the harbour.

Selfies by Sydney Harbour
Selfies by Sydney Harbour

Boats on Sydney Harbour
Only a matter of time before there’s Water Uber?

We had a look around the Opera House, joining many other tourists snapping away on our cameras, before climbing the nearby Moore Steps and finding a park to have a little rest on the grass.

By this time it was getting late in the afternoon, so we went back to the hotel and picked up our luggage, then headed for Museum Station and a train to the airport. Being peak hour, the train was pretty busy, and notably there must have been 100+ people getting off at the Domestic Airport station — pretty good for a service running every 6-9 minutes as they do in peak.

Domestic Airport station, Sydney

Qantas plane

View out of the plane from Sydney
An uneventful flight back — a dish of chicken gumbo for dinner — we landed back in Melbourne on time. I was furiously chewing gum again, and managed to bite my own tongue as we landed. Ouch.

We walked back to the car park, encountering the taxi queue along the way. The lead taxi was parked right across the pedestrian crossing, blocking the ramp — making life difficult with wheeled luggage. I angrily tapped on his boot as we walked around, and he moved a paltry few inches up, not really helping at all. Honestly, I know taxi drivers aren’t perfect, but I really expect better from people who drive for a living. This guy might as well have been trying to get people offside deliberately — the last thing the taxi industry needs right now.

Anyway, it was a quick trip home from there.

Total steps that day, according to my phone: 20,215.

We had a great time in Sydney. Yes, it cost a fair wad of cash to go up for only 3 days, and to attend the Doctor Who Festival, but the weather was perfect (we arrived the day after the 41+ degree heatwave), and the whole trip was very enjoyable.

New blog template

I quite liked the old blog template, but I know there were a few issues with it on mobile devices, and I didn’t have the time/energy to fix it.

So as part of trying out new web hosting, and making sure WordPress is all updated, I’m trying out a new template. Again, I don’t have the time to write a template myself, so I’ve downloaded a few that looked okay, and am testing this one (“Clean Journal“).

Let’s chuck in a picture here. Obligatory transport theme.

Bus. tram and V/Line train

If you have an opinion on the new design, or see any issues, including on mobile devices, please leave a comment.

Update 6:30pm: The image at full size was not scaling down on some small screens (eg phones), making the total width go large, and everything else smaller. I’ve tried changing it to a smaller size, but I’m a bit irritated that the theme doesn’t do that itself, and allow it to scale up on bigger screens.

Update 7pm: That’s not working either. I’ve switched back to the old template for now. One of the major problems in the old template was that the ads didn’t resize properly — I’ve updated to the Google Adsense plugin, and configured it to do its thing on mobile screens. I’ve also trimmed the menu, which was (weirdly) blocking things below it on small screens, so hopefully it all looks a bit better now.

Update Sunday morning: I’m going to stick to the old template (which I actually prefer), which seems to look okay on large screens, iPads, and Android. The only problem I’m having is with Safari on iPhone, which is scaling things down because it thinks something (invisible, apparently) is too wide. Odd.

Y2K was not a hoax. It was real, but it was (mostly) averted.

Bernard Salt writing in The Australian today implies that Y2K was a hoax:

Do you remember the Y2K bug, the computer programming flaw that threatened to reset the digital world to the year zero at the turn of the century? Hospital life support systems might stop. Planes might lose navigation. Everyone’s bank accounts might reset to zero.

The issue surfaced in popular culture in the mid-1990s; it reached fever pitch in the 12 months leading up to the new millennium. And then on New Year’s Day 2000 … nothing.

Phew, that was close. Just as well governments and big business invested millions if not billions in consulting advice to correct the situation. Here was a looming calamity that only geeks could understand. Our job was to comply and to pay up so as to avert disaster.

But I am of course being unfair to the peddlers of Y2K calamity — they were simply feeding the natural market for fear of the future. Why, no sooner had Y2K receded than the threat of pandemic via avian flu and then severe acute respiratory syndrome was scaring us witless. Same modus operandi as Y2K: credible narrative that only geeks can understand. It’s all so terribly empowering for geeks.

This gets my goat.

Y2K was very real. The effects were real, but mostly averted — precisely because it was taken seriously.

So what was the Y2K bug?

It’s not a problem that, as Mr Salt claims, only geeks can understand.

By the late 20th century, computerisation was becoming commonplace.

Because it was common for people to write years as two digits, and computer memory in the 70s and 80s was scarce, and forward planning wasn’t great, so it became common to write computer programs to use two digit years; to assume that the year was 19xx.

By the late-1980s, it was clear that ticking over into the year 2000 would be a problem for those computer systems using two digit years. It was drummed into us when I started my IT degree in 1989 that many of these systems would still be around in the 21st century, and they had to be written to take dates beyond 1999 into account.

My desk at work, circa 1994

A simple example: To calculate how many years since one was born, calculate the Current Year minus Birth Year. For me in 1995, this was 95 – 70 = 25. Easy. But what happens in the year 2000? 00 – 70. Either the computer would stop with an error (software can be a bit delicate, and prone to just stopping if something unexpected happens) or it might conclude that my age is minus 70.

It was blindingly obvious that with so many systems out there at risk of not coping with the year 2000, something had to be done. It was widely recognised, and acted upon.

How to fix it

In many cases it wasn’t really known what would happen, so a lot of testing occurred to show which systems were Y2K compliant, and which were vulnerable.

If vulnerable, broadly, there were three ways of fixing it:

  • Expand date fields to four digit years — complicated at times, and not always possible
  • Put in logic that said anything between 00 and (say) 49 was to be treated as 20xx rather than 19xx — easier in some cases, but this would cause problems with birth dates in particular, for older people. It also means the problem isn’t really fixed, just deferred.
  • Entirely replace/rewrite the software.

Of course any of these activities involves a lot of testing to make sure it all works.

How it played out

In the late 90s I worked at a company whose software was mostly written in the early-80s, running Point Of Sale and back-office operations for thousands of Australian service stations.

They considered rewriting their applications completely, which would have had the benefit of moving from old DOS/character-based interfaces to a more modern Windows graphical interface, but they are hugely complex applications, and there wasn’t time.

I worked for them writing Windows programs that replaced a small portion of their systems, but mostly they did a lot of work fixing their existing software instead. (As of 2015, they still haven’t been entirely re-written.)

Right across the IT world similar activity was happening. To their credit, big companies (often with the oldest, most trouble-prone systems) worked the hardest to avert a problem, knowing that if their computers fell over in January 2000, it could have significant economic impact.

Of course some people worked very hard to prevent issues, and of those, some made a lot of money in the process. (In Australia there was a mini-boom in IT at the time, was many programmers also worked on implementing the GST, which came in July 2000.)

A few (especially smaller) organisations largely ignored the Y2K problem, or just hoped it wouldn’t cause major issues. But most either replaced or fixed their systems.

Some put in operational precautions — for instance in Melbourne, the New Year’s Eve trains stopped for about 5 minutes around 1am on 1/1/2000 (because 1am Summer time is midnight Standard Time) for fear there could be power or other disruptions. (Spoiler: there weren’t.)


So what happened in 2000?

Despite some panic beforehand, most of the big and important systems kept working more-or-less to plan precisely because the problem had been recognised and acted upon.

But some systems either failed in non-critical ways, or produced slightly odd results. Here’s a documented minor example: in early 2000 I received an insurance renewal notice — from a small insurance broker — advising me to start paying from March 1900.

Insurance renewal

There were numerous other cases of date errors causing issues, for instance:

The only potentially worrying events occurred at nuclear power plants in Japan. Radiation-monitoring equipment in Ishikawa failed at midnight but officials said there was no risk to the public. Alarms had sounded at another plant at the same time but no problems were found. — BBC

But mostly the problems were only minor and/or amusing.

Could it happen again?

Individual computer systems have the potential for similar failures due to data fields overflowing. For instance a system that uses a unique number for each transaction but only allows ten digits could have problems after they tick over from transaction number 9,999,999,999.

Some systems track dates by seconds from a specific date, and those fields could overflow in the future — for instance on 19 January 2038, versions of Unix that use 32-bit time stamps will stop working.

It was real

In his opinion piece, Mr Salt appears to be playing to The Australian’s conservative audience. Although he doesn’t mention climate change, he seems to be saying that because we can’t see the effects of Y2K, swine flu or peak oil, none of them were or are real, basically saying we should dismiss any doomsayers who come along proclaiming there are big problems ahead.

The reality is we need to examine the evidence and be rational about it. Some problems are exaggerated, some are real.

Some were real and were avoided. Y2K was one of those. The problem was not conceptually complex; you don’t need an IT degree to understand that if nothing had been done, there could have been big problems.

Daniel Bowen
Bach. of Computing (Information Systems), Monash University, 1992.

  • Quite a good list of Y2K failures from 1999… with a bunch of ill-informed “hoax!” comments at the bottom.

Oz Comic-Con 2015 – and marriage equality

Science fiction and fantasy conventions used to be a homespun affair, run by the local clubs, featuring broadcasts of rare episodes and out-takes (before it all got released on DVD) and fan films. If there were guest artists, often they would appear only if they happened to be in the country at the time, and fees for photos and autographs were unheard of.

These days it’s big business. Not that it’s a bad thing. I like that geek culture is no longer a hidden-away, niche enterprise, and those who are interested in it have big events like Oz Comic-Con and Armageddon, and SupaNova, and others to go to every year.

And yet for all the big budget exhibition halls and merchandise stalls and paid guest appearances, it’s still the fans and their costumes that make it what it is.

OzComicon 2015: Batman

On the train into OzComiCon on Sunday morning, we were keeping a lookout for others attending — of course it’s sometimes a guess as to whether someone’s in costume, or just dresses eccentrically. I’d had a plan for a costume but wasn’t organised enough to get it all prepared, so went in civvies, but it was just as well as at lunchtime I had to duck out to talk to Channel 9 about the airport rail link.

This year it was at MCEC (along with SpecTex15 — a trade show about specialist textiles… their attendees were a little less outlandishly dressed).

Given the number of Doctor Who fans out and about, it was a shame that there were no related guests or sessions, but I went to an interesting Star Trek: Deep Space 9 session with Terry Farrell (Dax) and Rene Auberjonois (shapeshifter Odo).

Mostly it was light-hearted, but at one point they noted Friday’s marriage equality decision of the US Supreme Court, and Farrell said she was proud of the episode where she kissed another female actress — although the genders of both characters was unclear, she said that it had provided a chance to indirectly have the show stand up for people who then might have been unable to be public about their own relationships.

I’m struggling to paraphrase it well; she expressed it in a much more graceful and passionate way, and got a round of applause from the audience. In any case, it fits in well with the generally progressive vision of future society that has long been the hallmark of the Star Trek franchise — everything from the once-controversial multi-racial cast to the absence of money.

Anyway, here are some photos from OzComicon… as you can see, it was pretty busy, and people in costume were only too pleased to pose for photos.

Who you gonna call?
OzComicon 2015: Who you gonna call?

Whatever you do, don’t cross the franchises!
OzComicon 2015: Whatever you do, don't cross the franchises!

Lego TARDIS! Lego Pac-Man!
OzComicon 2015: Lego Tardis and Lego PacMan

Captain Picard from Star Trek: Next Generation snaps a photo of a Star Wars Storm trooper.
Captain Picard snaps a stormtrooper

Lots of cosplayers pose for a photo outside… you can see the picture in this story: Costume-clad fans flock to Oz Comic-Con Melbourne 2015
OzComicon 2015: Gathering for a photo
(View this photo at full size)

More media coverage:

Speaking of marriage equality, I’m somewhat surprised to see this that this tweet netted over 300 retweets and a similar number of favourites in 24 hours, and got quoted on Buzzfeed. Cool!

Online services: they know all about you

I love using Google’s services, but I think everybody knows they (and Facebook and Twitter and many other big internet companies) make most of their money via advertising, and that’s based on what they know about YOU.

Like they say, the service is not the product — you are.

How much do they know about you? Quite a bit.

As F-Secure’s Mikko Hypponen remarked at a recent conference: “Go to Google and buy an ad. Go to Facebook and buy an ad. Go to Twitter and purchase a ‘promoted tweet’, because it will open your eyes.”

Computers at PAX 2014

Google popped up yesterday with a link to review my privacy settings. Amongst the information it showed was what Google thinks I’m interested in, based on my browsing history. It’s quite enlightening.

Here’s my list:

  • Apartments & Residential Rentals
  • Bus & Rail
  • Business & Productivity Software
  • Cleaning Supplies & Services
  • Computer Components
  • Computers & Electronics
  • Fishing
  • Food & Drink
  • Food & Grocery Retailers
  • Games
  • HVAC & Climate Control
  • Home Appliances
  • Internet Clients & Browsers
  • Linux & Unix
  • Melbourne
  • Mobile & Wireless
  • Mobile Phones
  • Movies
  • Music & Audio
  • Network Security
  • News
  • Outdoors
  • Programming
  • Shopping
  • Smart Phones
  • Software
  • TV Sci-Fi & Fantasy Shows
  • Travel
  • Web Design & Development
  • Web Services

They all look like things I’m interested in, with one notable exception: fishing. I have no idea why it would think that. I’m also not sure why Cleaning Supplies and Outdoors would be in the top 30, but I assume in all these cases I’ve gone to some web sites looking for something else, but featuring both those categories.

Perhaps it’s a similar scenario to the legendary (and quite amusing) 2002 article about people who get categorised by their Tivo as gay, or Neo-Nazi, or Korean, based on a program or two that they may have watched, and then try to “fool” it by watching the opposite.

Still, if Google fairly accurately flagged 28 out of 30 interests of mine, it makes one wonder just how much the big (and small) online companies know about us all as we gleefully use their free products.

  • Those with Google accounts might like to try the Privacy Checkup themselves.