Wednesday, January 16, 2013


The short summary: Ranjini is a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee - she has been assessed as a refugee by Australia. She has also been assessed by Australia as a security risk. Because of these two interlocking assessments she can neither be returned to her home nor released into the Australian community. She, and her 3 children - a baby boy was born last night, are detained indefinitely. You can see more about Ranjini's story here.
The Australian legislation has ASIO making security assessments of asylum applicants. However neither the applicant nor anyone else (with some limits around a new review process) is allowed to see the assessment or know the reasons for it.
This is the crux of the matter. We have a government and a minister who have so badly botched the issue of asylum that the public no longer trust anything they say on the matter. Yet at the same time the public is expected to believe them when they, in a legislated framework, essentially say "trust us this woman is a risk to the community at large". This is the core issue of secrecy in government. It is also the reason that there must always, in a democracy, be a tension around secrecy.
I have not yet reached the point where I can say "there is never a reason for government secrecy'. What I do believe is that secrecy, in and of itself, is a danger to democracy. In the hands of the inept - and that's where I place this government - or the despotic, it is truly dangerous.
When we do not have trust in the sound administration of government why would we trust the executive when it says to us, in effect, "trust us this woman is such a danger to all of us that she must be locked up indefinitely without trial, without public scrutiny of the evidence and without capacity for appeal". That seems neither acceptable, reasonable, democratic nor humane.
So will Ranjini ever be deemed able to be released? Will successive governments continue to incarcerate her without trial or procedural fairness until she is so old and feeble as to be deemed a risk by nobody? What will happen to Ranjini? Will she ever be released? Will this or successive governments ever accept that they have an obligation to disclose to the public and to the affected person the matters that they say are enough to indefinitely detain them?
We release bombers, rapists, murderers and paedophiles into the community at the end of their sentence. Some at least of those people have been shown by research to be a high risk of re-offending. Yet we, rightly, say that they have served their time and we release them.
Ranjini has never been convicted of anything. Ranjini has never seen the evidence that purportedly shows her to be a risk, Ranjini has never seen the negative security assessment. No fairness, no natural justice and no scrutiny of the actions of secret government.
In the absence of the capacity to review, debate and scrutinise these matters in a competent court, we are left with only one way of viewing this: The decision to indefinitely detain Ranjini, and many others in her position, must simply represent complete paranoia on the part of the secret arms of the government and on the part of the executive. Why else would appropriate scrutiny of the assessment be barred? Why else would there be no basis for appeal?
We as a country should be scared for Ranjini and others like her. We should also be scared for the implications for legal fairness and democracy for the rest of us.
A brief addition to provide some more articles to help understanding of the situation Ranjini finds herself in.
Julian Burnside
Michael Gordon

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Being a Git!!

To paraphrase Linus Torvalds, he’s an egotistical bastard and so he always names his software projects after himself. Hence the name Git!
This post is not for coders, hackers or other nefarious creatures who write software for a living. This post is aimed at the common (wo)man in an ordinary old business.
Why would that sort of person be interested in Git? The Git that’s a distributed version control system (DVCS)? The Git that’s written for software development teams, like the one that builds and maintains the Linux kernel?
Let’s look at Git a little bit first (please don’t go away…I’m getting to the point). Git is:
  • A file system based version control system. That means it keeps its files in the file system of your computer, accessible to you with all the tools you might normally use to manipulate and work on those files.
  • A distributed system. That means that there doesn’t have to be a centralised repository although there can be. It also means that you can keep a copy of the repository on your local machine - desktop or laptop or both - and you can share it with other users without a central repository…or with a central repository or a number of central repositories.
  • A version control system. That means it keeps track of every change to every file that is added to Git for the life of the repository.
  • Capable of initialising and using remote repositories to enable repositories to be backed up and shared.
  • Lightweight, in the sense that it is trivial to install and manage, but deceptively powerful.
Imagine a scenario where you are an executive in a company, you travel a lot and you are currently working on a major rebranding of a product line. You are using an external graphic designer to create the logo and the “look” for the rebranding.
You want to be able to work on the rebranding project - all the documents and supporting materials - on the plane when you are travelling and in your hotel rooms. Meanwhile the designer is working on the logo, the general branding, the templates for the brochures and product information. She needs your feedback regularly. You’ve tried doing this by email and saving files to your local machine. However your boss is very picky, he wants to make sure this is exactly right. That means that you and the designer have been through multiple iterations and you are both losing track of the file names which are starting to look like logo_draft13_pete_v0.23.
This is the sort of situation where Git excels. It is trivially easy[1] to set up a Git project that saves you all the hassle. It would look something like the following picture.

Here’s how it works:
  • One of you would set up a local repository and, because of your specific needs, that person would also set up a remote repository[2]. It might be possible to operate in this scenario without a remote repository but it will be simpler with one.
  • That person would then add[3] and commit all their relevant files to their local repository.
  • That same person would then push their local repository to the remote repository.
  • Person two would now clone the remote repository to their local machine.
  • Finally person two would add and commit any files that they have that are relevant and that are not yet in the repository. They would then push their local repository to the remote repository. Person one would pull the remote repository. Now both people have all the files in their local repository and all the files are also in the remote repository.
Now the small fly in the ointment is that Git, by design, is a command line tool. Most of us can’t be bothered with tools like that. We are so used to GUI tools that we simply don’t want to work any other way. So we want a setup like this:

Every platform has various Git GUIs available, I use Sourcetree on the Mac but there are lots of choices.
As each person works, they work on the files in their local repository. They add new files to that repository and commit those files. At each commit Git takes a snapshot of the project and gives that snapshot a unique name. You can wind back to any commit at any time. It’s like endless versioning.
When either of you is ready they can push their local changes to the remote repository. This merges those changes into the remote repository. The other person, when next on line, is warned by their GUI tool that they are “behind” the remote repository so they can pull the remote repository to their local repository. That merges those changes in with their work and they can then push their changes back to the remote repository. Then the other person can pull…and so the process goes on[4].
Of course the next thing that happens is that your boss wants to see where the whole project is up to…well they can just clone the remote repository onto their machine and they have all the files to hand. The boss then thinks you need more help, the project’s growing, so he assigns two more members to the team. They just need access to the remote repository, they clone it and they’re ready to go.
This brief run through has barely scratched the surface of how Git can be useful to “non-coders”. For more information start with the following references.
Git homepage
A great Git book freely available on-line.
Github is a hosted Git service with both free and paid plans.
Git is also used as the “back end” for blogs and wikis and a whole range of other tasks. Google around and see what you find.
Oh, did I mention that Git is Free Open Source Software?

  1. Installing Git is a very simple and quick process, indeed if you have a Mac or a Linux machine it may come already installed, if not it’s the work of 30 minutes. Installing Gitolite (see other footnotes) is the work of maybe an hour, mostly getting keys set up. Anybody who can type in the console and can read instructions can do this from the very good directions available. Once installed setting up a repository takes less than 5 minutes.  ↩
  2. Remote in this sense means on a server accessible to the internet. Typically this repository would have its access controlled with something simple like Gitolite. Gitolite enforces extremely fine grained access control and requires all traffic to occur over SSH which is a secure link. Alternatively you could use a hosted service like Github.  ↩
  3. Text formatted like this denotes an actual Git command line command. To add a file called test.txt to Git the command would be entered like this: git add test.txt with add being the key word. You can do it quickly and simply from the command line, or more usually, you can use a GUI tool.  ↩
  4. Git can diff files between commits to show you what has changed. In general this capability is limited to text files of all sorts. Binary files such as PowerPoint, Word, Illustrator…can’t be diffed. Git knows that they have been changed, but can’t tell you visually what has been changed. Nevertheless Git keeps a version of every change that you have committed.  ↩

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Unexpectedness of Loss

Googling around tonight, as no doubt we all do from time to time, I was hit with a sudden sense of loss. I found that a bloke I knew briefly, but well, had died just over 3 years ago.

Ray Lynskey was a young bloke in the Royal New Zealand Airforce in 1978 when I met him. Ray was also a glider pilot. I was younger by a few years, a first year Uni student, far from home and finding life tough.

My escape was to fly gliders. That's where I met Ray. After a long day flying from a freezing airstrip at Wigram in Canterbury, we would retire to the bar. From there it was too far, too late and too cold to hitch a ride back to Uni. Instead Ray would give me a bed in his immaculate but very plain Airforce house on the base.

Ray was a quiet, upright sort of bloke. He looked after people and was a quiet leader.

I moved on, left Uni and went back to the north of the country where it was at least warm. Ray moved on too. Later leaving the Airforce and becoming a commercial pilot. Along the way he became the World Gliding Champion in 1995 and becoming the first pilot to fly a glider 2,000 km non-stop in 1990.

Ray died in 2009, of an inoperable brain tumour, after a short illness. I didn't know that until tonight. It took me aback with a strong feeling of loss. Ray was a great bloke, quiet and kind. He supported me when I needed it and for that I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Distributed Social Web

It's 30 years since the Internet began with the roll out of TCP/IP. Earlier than that the basic design of the Internet was generated in the ARPANET. The Internet and its progenitors had as a key design goal a distributed and resilient infrastructure. Poor reliability of links and nodes meant that the network needed to continue to operate even if links or nodes went AWOL.
Those requirements remain and much of the infrastructure that runs on the Internet demonstrates similar design. Two good examples are email and the XMPP protocol, both of which use a federated model. My mail and XMPP servers don't have "hard wired" connections to other mail or XMPP servers. When I send mail or message someone on another network I don't create an explicit connection between my server and theirs. Instead the traffic is routed through servers which federate with mine as required. In the case of XMPP the federation is generated either when I log on to an XMPP account not on my server or someone on another remote server messages me. In the case of email it happens when I send or receive email. In either case there are often multiple routes available and the connections live only as long as needed.
It's a good system that requires little human interaction. I don't have to determine how to get my email to you. Instead I enter your address and the various components of the email system work out where you are and how to get to you. Ditto with XMPP. The more infrastructure nodes that are "out there" on the Internet, the better the system works.
Now to a change in the way the Internet works. I'm not talking about the underpinnings...rather I'm talking about what sits on top of them. We are seeing the rise of the internet monoliths. Google, Facebook, Twitter...the business model of these and other Internet monoliths requires that you go to their "monolithic" location (I know that they are certainly using distributed infrastructure, its the presentation I'm talking about).
The business model relies on monetising either your presence, your traffic or increasingly it seems, your data. At the heart of all this is your data. We've seen the "privacy" shuffling going on at Facebook for some time, we saw a recent Instragram furore about data (and no I don't buy the hysterics over that but it was nonetheless troubling). Facebook was recently reported to have 900 million members. Facebook in this post suggests it's 1,000 million people. Those are phenomenal numbers. If you are one of those people, then your data is deeply embedded in Facebook. How would you migrate to another platform? What do Facebook's terms of service say about ownership and copyright of your data? Do you know?
These are all pretty valid questions given that, in simplistic terms, you and Facebook have different goals. You want to create and maintain connections with your friends. Facebook wants to make money out of your presence on their site and your data on their site. Please note: I am not saying that Facebook wants to sell your (explicit) data. I do believe that it's clear however, that their game plan is to make money from the fact that your data is on their site. That's good and proper that they should want to make money. It's your choice about your involvement however.
Data is also explicit (your posts, your pictures...) and implicit (who you talk to, what you say you do, where you say you visit...). The implicit data is probably more important than the explicit...hence the issue of Facebook following users beyond Facebook that arose last year.
Given these divergent goals it's likely at some point that someone is going to be unhappy about the deal. More to the point it comes to some basic questions about what we want from the we want large monoliths that can arbitrarily decide how we use the internet and what, to a large extent happens to our data?
The problem is fundamentally that the infrastructure of the "social web", unlike the infrastructure of the older parts of the web, is these monoliths. It isn't distributed - you aren't choosing a "Facebook provider" you're choosing Facebook.We are putting a lot of our eggs in one basket with our use of the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
The other option that's emerging from these concerns are distributed social networks: you choose which provider you use, or you create your own, and then you federate with other providers so that you remain connected and can interact and collaborate with others. One good example of this is Diaspora which grew out of exactly the concerns I've expressed. It's an early stage project which is just on the verge of being generally available.
I'm hoping that the next wave of the internet sees the rise of the Distributed Social Web. That way we begin to have choices. We can continue to use the big monoliths or we can begin to take control of our presence and our data and connect with our friends, family and colleagues in new ways and with new capabilities.

Which Blogging Platform?

I’m looking for a new blogging platform without a lot of success. So, here are the criteria:
  • Must store posts in a user-accessible directory structure as text files. I’m not going to be stuck again unable to get posts out if I want to migrate somewhere else.
  • Must be able to use Markdown as the preferred markup language.
  • Must be self-hosted.
  • Technical requirements:
    • Any of PHP, Ruby (but I’m stuck at 1.8.7 on the server so no requirements for 1.9.x), Python…Mac OS 10.6.8 is the server version and we’re stuck there for various reasons for the foreseeable future
    • Simple to install - I don’t want to have to spend days installing and then have a heavy management load. So installation should be fully scripted or installer based
    • Git backend would be a big bonus. We’re running Git with Gitolite on the server. It’s magically easy to install and use and I’m a big fan. No hosted Git solutions though please…so no Github or Heroku
  • Should provide existing CSS, templates and blog structure. I don’t want to have to fight for days to set up a site that looks OK and has some basic structures such as menus
  • Preferably with its own on-board commenting system
  • Must be FOSS (Open Source) software
If you know of anything that fits the bill please talk about it in the comments or head over to Twitter and tell me about it…I’ll be eternally grateful.