Category Archives: Commentaria

Mate

The Information Age has enabled human relationships that could not have existed in an earlier time, by creating discussion spaces that transcend regular geographical and social boundaries.

Some of these relationships go beyond what might be the norm for IRL (In Real Life,) as the online medium can be conducive to a greater degree of self-revelation than in a physical, public, space. We can, in quite a short time, come to know more about someone that we may have never met – and indeed may never meet – in person than someone with whom we have lived or shared a workplace for many years.

For some time I have pondered terms that could be used to describe those with whom we enjoy these relationships, online sharings of the soul, if one will, and have found most to be wanting. ‘Contact’ is a word I use frequently, but I find cold, sterile, and highly impersonal. ‘Friend’ is a word with which I am rarely comfortable as, to me, there are both an implication of commitment that is hard to quantify, and the fact that the word has all but been lost to the language due to its bastardisation by social media companies – where ‘contact’ probably would be an appropriate term.

Examining my own spontaneous (rather than considered) use of language, I find myself tending to the use of the Australian informal ‘mate.’ Whilst communication through language has to be based on consensus of definition, I often have perceptions of the meanings of words that transcend the (dictionary) consensus. Mate, to me, implies a relaxed, and unforced relationship, but one that may involve profound respect for, and a sense of privilege in knowing the person in question. I also consider ‘mate’ to be completely gender-neutral, and unsullied by the complications of any of the Deadly Sins, such as lust or jealousy.

If I call you ‘mate,’ I like you, and respect you as a human being, pure and simple, and in one, single syllable.

Identity, Nationality, and Culture

Whilst Scotland held a referendum on independence, at the helm of the @WetheHumanities Twitter rotation/curation account, @cristobál started a discussion about identity with an environment/environments:

So, I would like to know your opinion about identity in your environment, how you would define it and if there is space for multiple ones.

With nationalism rearing its ugly head, I recounted how the occurrence of the Falklands Conflict in my high school years cured me of that sentiment for life. (I have two mementoes of this: the Pink Floyd album The Final Cut, and Raymond Briggs’ book The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. Both highly poignant.)

I had long thought that my aversion to nationalism had stripped me of any real national identity, but a couple of hours sitting on a tractor, mowing weeds, gave me  time to ponder this, and  related issues. Realising that I had more thoughts on the matter than would fit comfortably into a tweet, or three, I decided to unburden myself here, instead.

It did not take me long to realise that my antipathy towards nationalism was as strong as ever – “we are better than everyone else who lives outside of this artificial boundary” does not sit well with me. Sexism and racism, where there is generally a fairly well defined means of demarcation of “them” and “us,” are pretty despicable things, but when the demarcation is an imaginary line – no, I’m just not going there.

To mis-quote Socrates, I am neither English nor Australian, but a citizen of the world – or am I? My tractor-time gave rise to the realisation that whilst I might not identify with the concept of a nation, there are cultural artefacts with which I do identify, things that are So Very English. PJ Harvey’s White Chalk [Youtube] says something about the landscape of my early childhood, and never fails to move me. Likewise the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a good India Pale Ale, the accents of South West England. Yes, I realise that people from the other side of the world can love these as well, but it’s the collection of these cultural artefacts that make me think that, culturally, I am English. [Note: I don’t use ‘British’ as I come from one specific place; if I used British, I might as well use European.]

So, this culture, that which I assimilated in my early years, is part of my identity. I don’t particularly miss the country I left – I am now somewhere else, this is my home. Is Australia part of my identity? If it is, in any way, it’s the landscapes.

And the Scottish vote? Important – a people deciding its future in a very significant way. (I do not regard a nation choosing its way forward as nationalism – unless that way forward involves something like the annexation of a neighbour.) I regard voting as a duty more than a privilege, and was delighted to see such a high-turnout, from a country where voting is not mandatory, as it is in Australia.

There is a certain irony in that, despite my views on voting, I am voluntarily disenfranchised. I won’t cast a postal vote for the country in which I no longer live (I left, I am no longer part of it,) but am unable to vote in the country in which I do, as I am not a citizen. I have rejected the idea of becoming a citizen, as this requires swearing an oath to be, as I see it, a flag-waving nationalist. If the oath were changed to “I swear to obey the law and pay my taxes,” just tell me where to sign.

Killing Time – And Small Business

I don't usually get into activism, but…

Although I don't wear watches that often, I do have a fascination for them (mechanical ones at least,) coming partly from my fascination for timekeeping – an example of which is my Solstice Clock project, but also because they are created out of a meeting of art and precision engineering – two things close to my heart.

Luxury watches mean different things to different people. Whilst some may regard them as a vulgar show of ostentation (and, on some people, this is the only thing they can every be,) I see them as a piece of art which is also a highly portable investment – which can, incidentally, tell the time.

Where there are luxury watches, there must be watchmakers. (Cheap watches have – sadly become very much a throw-away item in our wasteful, throw-away society.) Watch-making is one of those traditional skilled trades, for which I have an enormous respect. Being able to work with tiny parts – which can be made without the use of modern manufacturing processes – and keeping a purely mechanical device tuned to a surprising degree of timing accuracy rates as a very worthy occupation, in my view. A year ago, I would not have even contemplated trying to take a wrist-watch apart, but thanks to the generosity of third-generation watchmaker, Nick Hacko, who is sharing some of the required skills through a series of articles, I am assembling a toolkit – and hoping for some spare time – so that I will be able to strip down and rebuild one of my pair of old Seiko automatics.

Unfortunately, Nick advises us through his mailing list that there is something rotten in the state of watchmaking. Big corporations ripping off customers and hurting small business is old news – but it's happening in this sector too, where master watchmakers are already a rare breed. The essence of the problem is that certain large concerns such as Rolex and Richemont (Cartier, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai and others) will not sell spare parts to independent (but highly qualified) watchmakers, only performing repairs/service in-house. Having heard some horror-stories where customers are charged (at vastly inflated prices) for parts which are not even necessary to the repair in question, I am starting to have certain misgivings about the wisdom of acquiring a watch myself, at least from the investment perspective.

As I have mulled over the issue, I think that the aspects that upset me the most are that of another skilled trade being driven into extinction and that this is hurting small business. Running my own small business, the latter strikes a very loud chord (or possibly discord) with me.

Can anything be done about this situation? Possibly, but it's an effort that needs the help of many. Save The Time is a campaign trying to raise sufficient petition signatures to bring the issue before the ACCC (the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) for action. If you are reading this article, you can help – even if you aren't in Australia. Sign the petition, make a difference.

Footnote

Whilst this article has not (yet) brought monopolistic watch manufacturers to their knees, it has attracted a positive deluge of attempted spam comments, so comments on this article are thus turned off. If you wish to provide feedback or discuss this matter, please contact me directly.

Technology: Business Asset or Business Risk?

Risky Business

Everything we do, every day, has an element of risk. This is equally true in business as in other aspects of life. Whilst we may be aware of the risks inherent in driving to work, we are often unaware of risks involved in our work – not the regular health & safety risks – but more subtle risks to the business itself. Decisions we make in our use of technology assets generate risks, risks that might go unnoticed but could have a devastating impact on our business, should things go wrong. [And thus on the businesses of the clients that rely on us too; always remember that.]

This is a fairly long article, but I make no apology for this: business risk is a very serious matter. It could be worse: given the subject matter and my years in IT/network management, this could have been a very long article.

Seek, and Ye Shall Find

The process of identifying risks and their potential impacts is known as risk assessment. Risk assessments can be carried out by expensive consultants – or by anyone able to apply a little logical thinking and common sense. (When issues are complex or large amounts of money are at stake, it may be well to consider the expensive consultant route.)

For the purposes of this discussion, I am suggesting that we should list all the technologies that we use in our business and do a risk assessment on them. For each item we need to start by asking two questions:

The Yes/No Question

If this technology were to suddenly become unavailable, for whatever reason, would it affect my ability to do business?

The Quantity Question

Should the previous question yield an answer of ‘yes,’ for how long would I be able to work without this technology before its absence became a serious problem?

Write It Down!

Forewarned is forearmed. When undertaking a risk assessment, findings, plans of action, whom to call, etcetera, should all be documented. There is little point going through the exercise, having a risk become an incident and then finding that nobody can remember what is supposed to happen next.

In the following sections, I will run through a list of what I consider to be critical technologies, although not all will apply to all businesses. This list is not intended to be exhaustive but exists to give readers a starting point in performing risk assessments of the technology in their specific businesses.

The Telephone

Whilst there may be businesses out there that still do not have a computer (I have visions of people sitting at high desks, wearing fingerless gloves and half-moon glasses, writing with quill-pens in heavy ledgers,) very few will not have a telephone.

The Telephone Yes/No Question

As regards telephones, I cannot see the Yes/No question ever returning a ‘no.’ I make very little use of the telephone myself but it is an essential tool for When Things Go Wrong. Anyone who thinks that their business would not be affected by the loss of a telephone service should be asking exactly how they intend to call the fire service when their premises are burning down.

The Telephone Quantity Question

How long a business can operate effectively without a telephone depends on the nature of that business. I would not be comfortable knowing that I had no telephone service for over, say, one hour; the next thing to go might be my Internet connection – how would I call my ISP?

For any business where the telephone is a major means of communication with clients, any downtime is bad.

The Telephone – Discussion

Landlines

As we are starting off by looking at one of the most mature of technologies in use, let’s consider first the most mature of telephone technologies: the landline. As there may be businesses that do not have computers, there may be businesses that do not have mobile telephones. Strive not to be one of these because you need some means to call for service when the landline stops working. (Anyone thinking “oh, but we’ve got 10 lines” should be made aware that a backhoe can take out a 40-pair cable just as easily as a 4-pair cable.)

PABXs

If the business in question has a PABX, it should have a service contract for it. (Please tell me it has a service contract!) The answer to our Quantity Question should be used when negotiating the guaranteed response time for the service contract. If the answer is zero time, the minimum response time should be chosen.

–> Important Bit <–

Or should it? If the contract cost with the minimum response time sounds a bit steep, a little more thought is required. The cost of the outage (loss of business, etcetera,) should be weighed against the cost of the contract. Customer expectations should also be borne in mind as a part of this process. This is an important decision for the business owner and should not be undertaken lightly. This decision-making process applies not just to PABX service contracts but all business technology service contracts and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for online services such as web hosting, too.

Final Word on PABXs

Things may be different nowadays, especially if the telephone service is provided over fibre; however, traditional PABXs used to have ports for ordinary, analogue, handsets to be plugged in to provide a service in the even of power failure. If you have a PABX, find out if it has such a port(s) and get a handset connected for emergencies if one is not already fitted.

Mobiles

Landline hansets tend to be rather hard to lose and are reasonably robust (decent business handsets, at any rate.) Mobile handsets, on the other hand, are horribly easy both to lose and to break. I have two pieces of advice for the mobile ‘phone user to help mitigate risk:

  • Buy a USB SIM card adapter and software. These are very cheap and allow the contents of the SIM card to be backed up to a computer. Make backups regularly, especially if you add new numbers to your phone book on a regular basis. (Make sure that numbers are always saved to SIM, not to phone.)
  • Have a cheap, spare, handset that you can put your SIM card into in the event of the phone taking a tumble, a ride in the washing machine, or whatever. My SIM has survived the death of several handsets, including Death by Washing. My spare handset has a pay-as-you-go SIM card in it; should the main handset be lost or stolen, I can still make calls.

I know very little about smartphones and do not aspire to own one. However, a smartphone is a just a portable computing platform. Computers should be backed up. Check with your vendor to find out how.

Computer Hardware

Computer Hardware Yes/No Question

After some consideration, I an unable to think of a scenario where a business has a computer or computers but can work quite happily without them. On the strength that anyone reading this article is doing so using a computer (rather than have a secretary print off a hard copy to avoid touching that Devil Machine,) I will, as with the telephone, assume that we will be looking at a ‘yes’ response here.

Computer Hardware Quantity Question

This question is where I would expect to see a bit more variance in answers. A business that only uses a computer to run accounts once a week would probably be somewhat more comfortable with an outage than, say, myself. (I am a developer; no computer = no work. It takes a genius like the late but amazing Ada Lovelace to write software before the computer has even been built.)

As the computer is such a fundamental and critical component of my business, I will detail what I do to keep myself in operation.

Computer Hardware – Discussion

If the computer is a key tool in a business, the simple fact is that a spare should be available or some guaranteed means of laying hands on another one quickly. Not only does the spare machine need to be available quickly, it also needs to be ready to do what the regular one does (or did in the event of a failure) – any software used should be installed, it should be set up to work with the office network, etcetera.

Desktop Machines

Thinking about desktop machines, if someone in the organisation is any good with hardware, a set of spares can be carried for emergency repairs. (If several computers are involved, it helps if they are the same make/model or at least that spares are interchangeable.) A spare power supply and hard disc should be carried at the very least. The simplest approach, however, is to have an entire machine into which we can swap the hard disc (assuming this hasn’t died) from a defunct machine, or cannibalise for parts. (Also consider having a spare keyboard, mouse, monitor to hand – although most businesses seem to accumulate these in the course of upgrades.)

Where is the data used by the desktop machine stored? If it is on a server and the user has been disciplined to not save files to the local disc, swapping the machine out with another pre-loaded with the required software should be quick and simple. If, however, files are stored on the local machine a second, mirrored, hard disc (RAID 1) should always be employed if the machine is mission-critical.

Note that repairs/replacement could be effected by someone outside the business if they were known to be able to attend quickly. However, consideration should always be given to the fact that the critical person may not be available due to whatever reason. Contingency plans should always be made to cover this eventuality.

Laptops

Laptops are far less easy to repair than desktops. Keeping just-in-case spare parts is far more expensive than for their desktop brethren. Furthermore, laptops are easy to drop, steal, spill coffee in (far worse than spilling coffee on a desktop keyboard,) and generally give a hard time.

If, like me, the primary machine is a laptop, a spare is needed. This is probably the point where some readers will be saying “argh, expensive! I can’t afford that!” I would ask those readers to put a cost on the work that they will not be able to do without the spare.

The spare laptop need not be the same as the main one; it just needs to have the same software installed and be configured in a compatible manner. It can be clunky and slow so long as it is up to the task. I run a large, desktop-replacement ThinkPad as my primary. It does a great job, but is only portable in a fairly loose sense of the word. My secondary/backup is a little Vaio; it has a somewhat smaller screen but is very portable. It was also quite cheap.

Only one laptop ever leaves the house – the Vaio. As this puts it into Getting Stolen risk category, the hard disc is completely encrypted. (My machines hold sensitive client data; I have a duty of care to my clients to ensure that their data never ends up where it shouldn’t.) When at home, I keep the two machines synchronised after every file save. (I do this using version management software – a topic which exceeds the scope of this article but which I mention for the sake of those who might be curious and wish to investigate further.) So, when coffee hits keyboard, ignoring the repair bill, things are not so disastrous.

Oh, and a spare for a laptop can always be a desktop; it might prove a bit tricky to go walkabout with it though. If portability is not an issue, it could save a few $$$.

Networking Gear

I have experienced about as many failures of networking equipment – modems, routers, hubs/switches – as I have actual computers. As with computers, carry spares. If your business has a $5,000 managed hub, have a little $70 to tide over essential services when it goes “pfft!” I have a spare Ethernet switch to hand (an old one that I upgraded) and a ready-configured ADSL router/wireless access point. Total cost: $150.

Note that network cables tend to suffer all sorts of abuse – having a couple of spare in the drawer could just help save the day.

Contracts

My approach in the Computer Hardware section has assumed small to medium businesses which look after their own hardware requirements. An alternative, especially when dealing with expensive servers, is to have a maintenance contract. Maintenance contracts are just as much for sole traders as they are for large corporates. My points made in the PABX section regarding response times/SLAs apply in this context too.

With computer hardware services, there are a large number of fly-by-night operators (they exist in the telecomms sector, too.) Anyone considering a contract should look carefully at who will be delivering the service. My inclination would be to buy only from the Big Names such as Dell, IBM, HP/Compaq, Sun if any form of maintenance contract is required.

For those who particularly want to deal with a smaller operator, go ahead – but ensure that second and third smaller operators are also identified for when the first choice cannot/does not deliver.

What About Apple?

I am not an Apple user (apart from my iPod;) this section was written with PCs in mind but all concepts still apply. Vendors should be consulted regarding maintenance contracts and the like.

Network Services

In this section I will be discussing that all important tool, the Internet connection, along with e-mail, web hosting and this thing they call The Cloud. Now, I’ve already given two examples about the Yes/No question and the Quantity Question; for this section I will leave these as an exercise for the reader
and launch straight into some critical network services, the risks and how
they might be mitigated.

Internet Connection

Readers may have noticed a theme through the discussion so far – critical technologies require some form of backup. (Readers who have not noticed this are invited to have another coffee before re-reading this article 😉) Internet connections – if mission-critical – should have some form of backup just like all the other technologies mentioned so far. Assuming that the main Internet connection is coming in over a telephone line – either ADSL or a private pair (older technology) – mobile broadband makes a logical backup solution. However, there are limitations:

  • Mobile broadband is not available everywhere
  • Mobile broadband can be slow (it hardly deserves the epiphet ‘broadband’)
  • It might not be possible to plug it straight into an existing network (some routers can accommodate this though)

My advice with regards to backing up Internet connections for those of a non-technical nature is simple: talk to the ISP providing the main service. If this ISP cannot assist with a backup service, it may be worthwhile shopping around for another ISP that can.

E-mail

There are many different types of e-mail service (Amanda Gonzalez has written this simple guide at Flying Solo,) each with its own risks. The three main risks that an e-mail system presents are:

  1. Not being able to send/receive e-mails
  2. Losing sent/received e-mails
  3. Losing address books

A few tips/points regarding e-mail:

  • The safest e-mail service is probably a hosted one where availability of backups and an SLA are guaranteed by contract.
  • Personally, I like IMAP; I run (and back up) my own mail servers. My entire IMAP folder structure is copied to a second server in my office and also a server in the USA on a daily basis. IMAP also makes it convenient in that I can access my mail from either laptop at any time.
  • The risk of data loss with POP may be mitigated by backing up the appropriate folder(s) on the computer used to access mail on a regular (daily or greater) basis.
  • Unless using an enterprise mail system (GroupWise, Exchange, etcetera) where address books are a server function, address books for IMAP/POP mail clients need to be backed up.
  • Free e-mail services can provide a handy secondary/backup for regular e-mail services. Address books from primary services should be synchronised to secondary services on a regular basis.
  • I would discourage the use of any free e-mail services for mission-critical applications. When paying for a service, the provider has a contractual obligation to make sure that things work; with free services, it is a gamble. (I have seen enough instances of outages, compromised (hacked) systems and user data loss in free e-mail services to recommend them only as secondary/backup systems.)

Web Hosting

Here are a few points to consider when assessing the risks of web hosting:

  • SLA – 99.99% guaranteed uptime sounds great. But is that per year or per month? Lose a 9 there and that’s just under 9 hours in a year. Examine these figures very carefully.
  • Hosting providers (especially the cheaper ones) often perform scheduled maintenance without warning customers. How critical is uptime – is this an issue?
  • Overseas hosting providers often perform scheduled maintenance during the night – which might be in the middle of business hours elsewhere. Could this present an issue?
  • If a hosting provider is also handling DNS and/or registration for a domain, it may be very hard to move to another provider in the even of the first provider going broke (doing a runner, turning ‘funny,’ etcetera; I’ve heard them all.)
  • Always have a hosting contingency plan should it prove necessary to move a site in an emergency.
  • Remember that ftp is not a secure protocol. Personally, I would not use a hosting provider that used ftp with plaintext user name/password logins for any site that handled sensitive (personal, financial) data. ftps (encrypted ftp) should really be the minimum standard.

The Cloud

Readers are likely to have been hearing much buzz of late regarding ‘The Cloud.’ The main thing to understand about Cloud Computing is that, rather than having software installed on my computer, I run software on another computer (or computers) somewhere else.

It is at this at this point that I should disclose that I am a self-confessed Cloud Skeptic. Whilst I can see the many benefits and possibilities of Cloud Computing, I am very much aware of the risks that come with this technology and which need to be addressed before the business world becomes over-reliant on it.

Web Applications – There Rather Than Somewhere

Here I am, a web applications developer, saying that The Cloud is risky. Is this not an odd thing to do? No – and for two reasons:

  1. I constantly analyse the risks of my own business
  2. I make a distinction between the applications I write and host in known physical locations with applications running somewhere (anywhere.) I run Virtual Private Servers (VPS) for myself and my clients; these are located in data centres I have specified. If I were to ask my provider, they could even send me a photo of the physical machines the VPSs are running on. With a Cloud-hosted application, I just have to be content with it running ‘somewhere.’

My concern over Cloud-hosted applications is that there the systems required to produce server instances ‘somewhere’ are by far more complex (and immature – and I’ll cop some flack for saying this) than those required to deliver a Virtual Machine on that computer over there. –> *points*

Internet Connection

No, this is not an inadvertent copy and paste from earlier on in this article. If I run software – say a word-processing package – on my computer and my Internet connection fails, I can carry on using it. However, if my word-processing package is actually running as a service somewhere in Cloud-Land, whoops – it’s gone. The Internet connection thus becomes the weakest link in the business for which provision needs to be made accordingly – such as a means of being able to work offline.

Use The Cloud, by all means – just be prepared.

Conclusion

If all that technical detail has readers reeling, not to worry! I will now summarise the entire article in three bullet-points:

  • Technologies on which a business relies present risks.
  • For each technology used by a business, an assessment should be made as to whether it presents a business risk and, if so, to what degree.
  • Action should be taken for each identified risk which may include:
    1. Acquiring backup equipment
    2. Taking out support contracts
    3. Identifying alternative vendors
    4. Documenting plans on how to respond to a risk becoming an incident

Other Stuff

Likely as not, if looking at business risks for the first time, readers might be starting to think that they extend far beyond the technology risks I have discussed. I will, therefore, leave you with some further avenues of thought:

  • Infrastructure – power, water.
  • Premises – where to relocate?
  • Key staff – should more than one person understand their role?
  • Work vehicles – alternatives when off the road?
  • Zombie attack; seriously. Zombies only exist in the movies (and my office, before my first espresso,) but analysing the risks of a hypothetical, if fictional, scenario may identify gaps elsewhere.

Phew, finished! It’s a lot easier to do risk assessments than to tell other people how to do them. Hey, wait, is this thing still recording?

What Gives – Smiffy’s Corollary

Feather asks “What Gives?”

What Gives? – a blog post by Derek Featherstone – gets my classification of “essential read” for all those struggling with the work/life balance – and losing.

Chronic ill health impacted my ability to work severely for the last 6+ years, as I have mentioned elsewhere in this journal. Even now, when relatively better (for a given value of “better,”) I am only able to work what most would regard as part-time hours. What I have learned from this experience gives me:

Lesson 1

Productivity is very much a case of quality of work over quantity of work.

I am now chugging away steadily, getting far more done than I did in the frenetic days when I was first self-employed.

When work time is increased beyond a certain point, greater quantity will lead inevitably to lesser quality. (In my line of work, this means making mistakes and this gobbles up even more precious time as debugging generally takes considerably longer than the original coding.)

The other thing that my experience has taught me is:

Lesson 2

Prioritisation (even when you spell it with a z) – of all aspects of life – has to be the first task in the quest for normality, productivity, and Quality of Life.

Conclusion

In my case, it was not work that caused the deterioration in my health (although I am sure that it contributed,) but vice-versa. However, when people are “freaking killing themselves,” to paraphrase Derek, health collapse is likely on the cards. It would be nice to think that people might be able to learn some of the lessons that I have without having sickness as a teacher.

Rudd Stimulus Package lets down struggling small businesses

Preamble

The year is 2009, the world economy is seriously in the brown stuff, primarily due to a lack of regulatory oversight of US financial institutions.  The Australian Labor (supposedly socialist) government under Kevin Rudd creates an Econonic Stimulus Package to promote economic growth in these difficult times and reduce the effects of recession.

Let's give out lots of money!

Part of the Economic Stimulus Package involves cash hand-outs to those earning under $100k AUD per annum.  The amount of these hand-outs is determined by income, with a maximum of $900 AUD per person.

Who can object to free money?  If someone were to give me a legal, tax-free 900 dollars I should be delighted – if it were not for the fact that this money actually has to come from somewhere.  Putting the nation in to debt to give people freebies doesn't strike me as being sound economic practice but heck, I'm a software developer, what would I know?  Nor could I really object if someone actually gave me some "free money".

The hidden conditions

I – and many others – have only just discovered the hidden conditions behind the cash hand-out.  Whilst this has been much touted in the media for some time, these conditions have been quietly ignored.

Let me divulge my own business situation: as those who know me are already aware, I have had chronic health issues for the last few years that have seriously impacted my ability to work, and thus my income.  Due to my short hours, in the last tax year, my nett profit was such that I did not pay any income tax.  (I did, however, collect GST and had to donate my own time for free to the Australian Tax Office to report this.)

It was only when I received a newsletter from my accountants, which had an article on the Stimulus Package, that I discovered that the hand-outs were only going to those who had actually paid income tax or Medicare Levy in the past financial year.  Did I hear this from the government press-releases?  Was this ever mentioned in the media coverage?  No.  It took until the time when the supposed hand-outs were to be given out that I found that I wasn't going to get anything.

It is not the fact that I am not going to get free money (and thus run the country into debt) that annoys me – it is the fact that this fairly significant condition was never openly disclosed.

It gets worse

That I am not entitled to the benefits because I have not been able to work enough are neither here nor there.  What is far worse is that small businesses that are trading normally but, for whatever reason, have not made a profit are also missing out.  I know of a person who runs a specialist retail business (food industry) who made a good turnover but, due to current conditions, did not make sufficient profit to be paying income tax.  The result: no hand-out.

To me, if anyone actually needs the "free money" then it is small businesses that are struggling. The retailer I mentioned already had plans for the stimulus money before she found out that it wasn't happening.

Small businesses are the life-blood of any nation; to ignore those that need help whilst giving help to those who don't really need it is ill-considered, to put it mildly.

I will pre-empt the cynics who may regard this as commercial natural selection: whilst some small businesses will always be doomed to failure, many current hardships are due not to poor business planning/market research but to external pressures over which business owners have no control.  In the same way in which public healthcare protects and nurtures the population (or at least it should,) "economic healthcare" should be protecting and nurturing businesses, especially those that are most frail and need this healthcare the most.

Conclusion

Whilst there are still benefits that can be enjoyed by those missing out on the benefits described (tax incentives on new capital purchases – if they can be afforded,)  I feel that the whole hand-out scheme is ill-conceived.  Not only does it not reach some of those who really need it, but it is putting the nation – including the recipients – into debt that they certainly do not need.

By the way, if you are a small business owner who is struggling and, by reading this, have just found out why that cheque hasn't turned up, please don't blame me; I may be the Harbinger of Bad Tidings but am not about to fall on my sword as I have already been wounded enough by the government's deception (intentional or otherwise) in this sad affair.

 

TinyURL for this page: http://tinyurl.com/cgboln

Amazon, MP3 and Vaporware

Here is the the current official status regarding Amazon.com selling MP3 recordings outside of the USA. In case this disappears, I will transcribe it here:

At this time music downloads are only available to customers using a credit or debit card issued by a U.S bank with a U.S. billing address. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. We're working to build a successful store on Amazon.com and hope to adapt it to our other Web sites in the future. Please continue to check back for additional information on supported locations.

It took some searching just to find this piece of information; when I found it, I was less than amused. I have sent Amazon the following feedback:

Considering the number of people who want to use this service (myself included), is this all we get? Most unhelpful – it's just as bad as those "under construction" pages that used to plague the web. (You know, the ones that pretty well guarantee that visitors won't return.) Please provide DATES – we want to know WHEN the service will be available, or even WHEN you will be providing status updates (even if that means "sorry, still no news").

It also took me a LONG time to track down even that little snippet of information. Please, do try to get with it – don't go alienating a huge market by making it look like you don't care. There ARE quite a few people buying music who don't live in the USA and currently they are having to throw all their money at your competitor, Apple, whether they like it or not.

Exactly what is Amazon playing at? Are international MP3 sales just some form of 'Vaporware'? Back in January (2008), the blogosphere was alive with 'Amazon to sell MP3s internationally'. Here we are in the third quarter of 2008, with nothing more than that silly little message.

I will append Amazon's reply to this post – if I get one.

Sun to buy MySQL

Sun Microsystems CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, has just announced in his blog that Sun Microsystems is to acquire MySQL AB, the company behind the MySQL database which underlies all the web applications that I have ever developed.

All the “big boys” in the IT game (barring Microsoft, of course) have been moving down the Open Source route, but possibly none to the degree of Sun.

The enviable collection of OpenSolaris, OpenOffice, Java, NetBeans and GlassFish (I’ve probably missed others) will now be joined by my favourite database. I use all those products listed, apart from Glassfish. In Schwartz’s words:

…we’re putting a billion dollars behind the M in LAMP.

I think – or at least sincerely hope – that this is Very Good News.

Blogathon 2007

It has been some time since Smiffy’s Place last saw any new material – some 3 months in fact.  Maybe an explanation for this lapse would be appropriate.

Since this past June, I have been busy.  With my impaired health, I am only able to work about 5 hours every other day – combine this with 3 client projects, one rather large, and that accounts for nearly all the time that I have spent in front of a computer in the last 6 months.  Whilst still working on one of the client projects, I am allowing myself some “me” time to work on some of my own stuff.

Due to the combination of ill-health and general busy-ness, a few projects have fallen behind.  One of these, I am sad to say, is my Dublin Core for Drupal project.  As my paying clients have to come first and because I am moving away from Drupal for my own projects, it is with some regret that I must put this project on indefinite hold; I simply cannot commit the time required at present to learning the Drupal API to the degree required to produced an effective module that integrates correctly with the Drupal core.  Should anyone interested in the project wish to see the database mechanisms that I was going to use, please get in touch.

Another sad miss was this years OzeWAI conference.  Although too sick to attend last year, I was at least able to make a presentation via Skype and some remote-controlled HTML.  This year, pressures of work prevented even that.  Hopefully next year…

One personal project that is about to “go” is a simplified re-write of my “Aggie the Aggregator” RSS aggregation software which will be driving the Gluten Free Feeds site.  This site is an aggregation of feeds from sites and bloggers with the topic of gluten-free living.  The site is currently generated using the RSS aggregator module of Drupal.  Unfortunately, the Drupal aggregator is highly intolerant of errors in feeds so content frequently does not make it to the front page.  Whilst I would like to live in a world where all site feeds are well-formed, valid XML and contain no weird (like Windows character set) characters, I believe that this world – which has also cured cancer, eliminated poverty, war and Western-style fast food – is one that does not, and never will exist.  So, the plan is to build a light-weight aggregator that uses the Perl HTML::Parser module – a most lenient and forgiving piece of code that should ensure that all but the worst of feeds may be parsed, sanitised and displayed.

In other news, I will be reporting on the iPod Nano, weight training with Chronic Fatigue, an anti-disablist cartoonist, and how to make perfect gluten-free fish and chips.

Blogathon 2007 posts will be filed under the Blogathon07 category in addition to any others.

Another Sildenafil Story: Jetlagged Hamsters

A recent news story regarding the dubious practice of feeding sildenafil citrate to oysters may have obscured a more practical use of this drug, generally used to treat erectile dysfunction. Sildenafil accelerates reentrainment of circadian rhythms after advancing light schedules is the title of an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which details a study where sildenafil was used to treat hamsters with jetlag. Globe-trotting hamsters rejoice!