Opt-in Creative Commons licencing plugin for WordPress?

Does anyone have a recommendation for an opt-in Creative Commons licencing plugin for WordPress. That is, one where the default state is not to CC licence something, but when some action is taken, an individual post or page can be so licenced.

As background: I have no desire to write, maintain, or even debug a WordPress plugin. I want to know if there is something for this use case that Just Works.

I want opt-in, because it is too hard to remember, or to train others, to find an opt-out box when posting, and thus end up CC licensing things that weren’t intended to be, or can’t be, released under such a licence.

Some options I’ve already looked into:

WP License reloaded: was pretty much exactly what I wanted but doesn’t seem to be actively maintained and is now failing (possibly because the site in question is now hosted on SSL, I’m not sure, see above about not being interested in debugging).

Creative Commons Configurator: seems to be the most actively maintained CC plugin, but seems to be opt-out, and even that was only introduced recently.

Creative Commons Generator: opt-out.

Easy CC License: perhaps what I want, although I’d rather do this with an options dialogue of some kind than a shortcode.

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The Sydney Project: Luna Park

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. Welcome to our year of child-focussed activities in Sydney.

Luna Park entrance

by Jan Smith, CC BY

Luna Park is, honestly, essentially cheating on this project. Do children like amusement parks? Yes. They do. There you go.

In addition, I think four years old is basically about the right age for them. It’s old enough that children are aware that a giant painted face, tinkly music, and carousels aren’t a completely normal day in the world, young enough that the carousel is still just as magical as the dodgem cars. And too young to have horror-film associations with amusement parks, I think that helps too.

Luna Park ferris wheel

by Kevin Gibbons, CC BY

It’s also more accessible to a four year old than some more thrill-oriented parks. V isn’t scared of heights or speed, so he loves the Coney Island slides, and was annoyed to find out that he was too short for the Ranger (the ship you sit in that gets spun upside down about ten stories in the air) and the free-fall ride. He is, however, apparently afraid of centrifugal force parallel to the ground, and refused to go on any “octopus” rides.

Even the four year old who wants to go on the free-fall ride is still young enough for, well, frankly dinky rides like the train that goes around about five times in a circle while you pretend to drive it, and the space shuttles that turn in gentle circles and which slowly go up and down when you press a button. His big draw is the ferris wheel, which I found fairly horrifying this time as I read the signs about keeping limbs inside to him and then had to answer a lot of questions about “why? why do I have to keep my limbs inside?” while giant pieces of metal calmly whirled past us with their comparatively infinite strength. In a similar vein, V also enjoys the roller coaster past all reason and sense, whereas Andrew and I react with “this seems… flimsy…” (I love coasters, but I like them to look overengineered).

Luna Park, where there's still a space shuttle

The only things V really didn’t like were the organised dancing groups who were encouraging children to learn their (cute!) 1930s-ish moves, and the process of choosing a child from a hat to press the lever to light up the park at night (he refused to let his name be entered), because there’s some specific types of performative attention that he really loathes. But there’s plenty of children gagging to dance along and to light up the park that an objector goes unnoticed. It’s not coercive fun.

Cost: entry is free. Rides aren’t, an unlimited rides pass for the day starts at $29.95 for a young child and goes to $49.95 for a tall child or an adult. There are discounts for buying online. (The entry is free thing sounds really useless, but it’s actually good if you have several adults, not all of whom are interested in the rides and/or are looking after babies.)

Recommended: indeed. We’ve considered getting an annual pass, in fact.

More information: Luna Park Sydney website.

Disclosure: because of a prior complaint to Luna Park about opening hours (we showed up several months ago at 2:15pm to find that an advertised 4pm closure had been moved to 3pm), we were admitted free this time. No reviews were requested or promised in return for our admission.

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The Sydney Project: Tyrannosaurs Big and Small at the Australian Museum

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. Welcome to our year of child-focussed activities in Sydney.

The Australian Museum has two programs for kids: Tiny Tots and Mini Explorers, which are patterned something like Art Safari, with the children doing an activity themed to match a current exhibit.

V did Tyrannosaurs Big and Small, which went with the Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family exhibit. The Tyrannosaurs Big and Small activities ended in June, although the Tyrannosaurs exhibit is continuing through to July 27.

Paleontology

This activity benefited compared to Art Safari in the amount of time available to the children. They started off in an education room with several activities. They first had a short talk about dinosaurs, specifically, working out how big dinosaurs are based on one or two bones. Honestly, this seemed to thoroughly lose most of the children, V included. Most of the remainder revolved around a very shallow imitation of archaeology: finding plastic dinosaurs hidden in sand, or in jars filled with dried lentils. V has not yet absorbed any awe of archeology and regarded this as an exercise in playing with sand rather than a moment of entering into the noblest profession a child can conceive of. The other activity was taking dinosaur shapes cut out of paper (necks, legs and such) and gluing them together into one’s very own dinosaur, which V got quite into.

So no great educational inroads were made, but fun was had. And it didn’t manage to trigger V’s perfectionist tendencies and cause a lot of flouncing and dramatic self-recriminations.

Dino art

All the children were then given a dinosaur tail to wear — I appreciated the staff saying that wearing one was entirely up to the child, although V was perfectly willing — and a giant mass of children and parents headed down to the main exhibit. In theory we were supposed to be measuring the various tyrannosaurs and otherwise filling out an activity sheet, in practice we were mostly keeping tabs on our children and keeping the fossils safe from them. Or I was, anyway.

The exhibit itself is great, I’m intending to go back by myself before it’s up to properly appreciate it. The main attraction is Scotty. Andrew was very impressed by the faked shadow they’ve put behind Scotty, which moves and roars periodically. They’ve also done an amusing video which is mock security footage of the museum being invaded by dinosaurs, including live footage of the viewers themselves, surrounded by invading dinos. This took up a lot of V’s time. Less good for children — and what I’m going back for — is the bits about how, for example, the coloration of dinosaurs is being determined.

The sad thing about taking a young child to this sort of thing is that you cannot impress on them how unusual it is. Australian museums are not full of world-class T. rex skeletons! You won’t get to see this very often! Appreciate it while it… oh never mind.

The only downside was that the ticketing was rather poorly integrated into the massive assembly line that is admittance to the main exhibit. Andrew arrived late and without a phone, and they had to page me down to the information desk to explain that he had a ticket to this workshop, not one of the timed tickets to Tyrannosaurs. We also didn’t know for sure if we were even going to see the main Tyrannosaurs exhibit and nearly bought separate tickets to it. Whoops.

Cost: $12 children and $24 adults, which was reduced a lot for museum members. The year-round equivalent is Mini-Explorers, which is $10 children and $15 adults.

The exhibit alone is $13 children and $22 adults. Odd.

Recommended (kids’ activity): cautiously. They’re well designed programs with a fair amount of thought put into them, but they are, basically, a craft activity and an “opportunity” to chase your child through a museum exhibit. It might be best saved for an exhibit that your child is likely to be unusually interested in.

Recommended (Tyrannosaurs exhibit): hell yes, circle July 27 on your calendar with danger signs and scary notation.

More information: Mini-Explorers and Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family websites.

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Your crontab file should start with “crontab -l”!

I’ve never personally had this problem, but a number of people have told me that they’ve, often repeatedly, accidentally deleted their crontab by typing crontab -r (which silently removes a crontab) rather than crontab -l (which shows you what is in it) or crontab -e (which lets you edit it). It doesn’t help that “e” and “r” are next to each other on QWERTY keyboards.

Create a single backup of your crontab contents

Since I realised this was an issue, I’ve made the first line in my crontabs the following:

@daily crontab -l > ~/crontab.backup

If you ever accidentally use crontab -r, you can use crontab ~/crontab.backup to reinstall your crontab!

Adjust @daily to a time at which your computer is likely to be on, if it’s not always on, eg 0 10 * * * for 10am daily.

For bonus points, writing this entry reminded me that I hadn’t reinstalled my laptop’s crontab on my new machine, and meant it was easy for me to find and install!

Create timestamped backups of your crontab contents

The above is simple and suffices for me, but if you don’t have a backup routine that will grab ~/crontab.backup regularly enough for your needs, you could do something like this instead:

@daily mkdir -p ~/crontab-backups; crontab -l > ~/crontab-backups/crontab-`date +%Y%m%d-%H%M%S`; find ~/crontab-backups -type f -ctime +7 -delete

Explanation:

  1. mkdir -p ~/crontab-backups makes a directory crontab-backups in your home directory if it doesn’t already exist (and doesn’t complain if it does exist).
  2. crontab -l > ~/crontab-backups/crontab-`date +%Y%m%d-%H%M%S` puts your current crontab into a file named with a datestamp (eg crontab-20140711-124450 so that you can easily have more than one
  3. find ~/crontab-backups -type f -ctime +7 -delete finds all files (-type f) in ~/crontab-backups that were created more than 7 days ago (-ctime +7) and deletes them (-delete)

Warning: you don’t want to put anything else in ~/crontab-backups, because it too will be deleted after seven days.

Posted in Technology | 1 Comment

Use python-flickrapi 1.2 even after the Flickr SSL transition

On June 27 2014, Flickr changed their API to be SSL-only. The Python flickrapi library was one of many pieces of software that used HTTP to connect to Flickr’s API, and that therefore broke for some users on June 27.

flickrapi supports HTTPS connections as of version 1.4.4, released on June 18 2014. If you are able to upgrade to a new version of flickrapi, you can get the latest flickrapi version from PyPI and ignore the rest of this post.

However, as of mid-2014, many Linux distros, including Ubuntu 14.04 (supported until 2019), still package flickrapi version 1.2, which cannot connect to Flickr’s API over HTTPS and is therefore now non-functional. Since developers may for various reasons choose to use their distro’s version of python-flickrapi, I’ve written a very very small Python class that overrides flickrapi’s FlickrAPI class to connect to Flickr over HTTPS rather than HTTP, and allows continued use of the Flickr API.

You can download my Python module that allows this: flickrapissl. See the README for usage.

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The Sydney Project: Art Safari at the Museum of Contemporary Art

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. Welcome to our year of child-focussed activities in Sydney.

Pipe cleaners at the MCA

Art Safari is one of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s kids’ activities: a program where pre-school children look at a few pieces of art in the galleries and do some related art of their own. I enjoyed the Art Baby tour a lot and was keen for V to have a go at Art Safari. We were joined by another four year old, A—, and her family.

MCA milkshake

Starting in the cafe with an enormous chocolate milkshake was a non-core part of the experience but got things off to a good start, except that the cafe was a bit of a horror show of mothers’ groups and Mountain Buggy strollers (guilty as charged on the stroller) and my memory of it is of a fair bit of flurrying and crowdedness. We had some trouble getting V and A— to say goodbye to their milkshake remnants and to go to the classroom for their exercise.

They started off with some circle time talking about colours and what things they could think of that had each colour. Which led me to discover that I have the shouty kid who wants to give every answer, specifically, who wants to bellow periodically every time a new colour word comes to mind. At this age, it’s a bit awkward to figure out the division of discipline: am I supposed to step in and tell him to quit it with the bellowing, or is that all under control? (I see this play out each week at swimming lessons too, with parents evenly divided between those hissing warnings to their children to pay attention and work hard, and those with their nose in a book.)

Art adventures

I think there’s a lot of scope for kids to interact with some contemporary art, and the art chosen for this was a good example: a whole coloured floor to pace and march around and to match their coloured pipe cleaners with. Good choice.

A less good choice was the security guard who came over and told me that there is a “no backpacks, no exceptions” rule. I assume this is because backpacks are so liable to knock over art works which… obviously is a problem, but it would have been really annoying if I’d had my baby in a front pack and then needed to, I guess, carry the backpack around in my hands, since I can’t dangle it off the baby. It’s just generally not the greatest thing in the world, to have no socially acceptable way to lump around the giant haul of nappies and wipes and changes of clothes and such that a young baby requires. I think I’m supposed to leave most of it in the car I don’t own. (Tangent: I wasn’t babywearing that day, but I often do, and it is quite common in babywearing discussions around this issue for it to emerge that many babywearers either are never far from their cars, or never far from their adult partners.) Probably the best way for the MCA to deal with this would have been for the instructor to mention it before we all left the classroom, so I could have left the bag there.

V found the first activity — making interlocking circles out of pipe cleaners — a bit frustrating (he couldn’t figure out how to twist the pipe cleaner around itself to close the circles), and I was disappointed that the session doesn’t allow enough time for the instructor to notice and help floundering children. That said, each child did have a parent with them, so of course I was able to help him out myself just before he vanished into a big pile of “I can’t, I can’t, it’s so haaaard, I can’t!”

Turntable art

Afterwards we went back to the classroom for an activity he found much more intuitive and fun, holding a texta against a piece of paper as it spun on an record player, so as to draw circles and spirals. I think the instructor tried to briefly mention that this was an older way of playing music, but V in particular, and I think children of this age generally, don’t really grasp that the past was noticeably different from the present and have no interest in cooing over more cumbersome ways of playing music that predate their parents’ era as well. (Although, that must have been fun, back when people got to play music with TEXTA MACHINES!)

Noise and colour

Almost as an aside, the instructor pointed the children at lights that changed colour when you clapped near them, which is nearly as much fun as textas. This was a good microcosm of the whole experience; just slightly rushed. I feel like if each part of it had 10–15 more minutes, V would have had more fun. That said, he was very proud of the art he’d made.

Cost: concession is $16.85, general admission is $21.95. I’m honestly not sure if both parents and children are supposed to buy a ticket. I bought one for me and one for him.

Recommended: not for the price. It’s a fine activity, it was however slightly rushed throughout.

More information: Museum of Contemporary Art’s kids’ activities website.

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Australian passport lifehacks, the unpaid version

If Alex Kidman can get a Lifehacker article out of a last minute passport application, I can get a blog entry.

I’ve had cause to apply for too many Australian passports in the last couple of years (mine and both of my children), and lo, I come to share my wisdom.

The online form

The passport office has an online version of the application form you can fill in. My advice: unless you are eligible for an renewal, do not bother with the online passport form.

All the online form does is generate a document you need to print out and take to a post office and it’s almost impossible to get the printer settings right to the point where I’m yet to meet anyone who actually has done so (apparently the passport office is very picky about it being printed in exactly the right size, in a way that printer drivers just don’t support). Plus, as Ruth Ellison noted in 2008 (and it looks like the website has not been redone since), the user experience is dreadful. Instead, go to the post office, pick up a paper application form, take it away and fill it out. And this is coming from someone who hand-writes so seldom she can’t reliably replicate her own signature any more, so you know I’m serious.

Actually, grab two forms, because they’re also fussy about any mistakes you make on it and it might be better to just complete a second form if you make one. (When I say “they”, it’s actually not clear if the passport office is incredibly fussy or if the post offices are overcautious on their behalf. But it doesn’t matter to you, normally. Someone is fussy.)

If you are renewing, it generates a single page form for you to sign. This is more reasonable to print. Make sure when you print it that no part of the form has been cut off at the edges of the paper and this seems to suffice. The alternative is calling the passport office and they will print this form for you and mail it to you.

Passport timelines

The Australian Passport Office is pretty good about its timelines (10 working days for a normal application, 2 if you pay an additional priority fee of roughly 50% of the cost of a normal application), but the trick is they do not include Australia Post’s part of the process. That is, they do not include the time taken for the application to be transported to them, nor the time Australia Post takes to deliver it back to you. The delivery is especially tricky because they mail it to you registered post at your residential address. Registered post is delivered to people, not mailboxes, so unless you tend to be home all day, you will miss the delivery and need to pick up from a post office, probably the next day.

So, you can read their processing time something like this:

Normal application They say 10 working days or less. However, apply at least three weeks and ideally more before you need the document if you want to receive it in the post. If it’s a near thing, pay the priority fee or, if you live near a passport office, ask the post office to mark it as for collection at the passport office, and they ring you and you go and pick it up there the day it is ready rather than having it take multiple days in the post. (Source: my husband did a normal application with passport office pickup in March 2013.)

Priority application They say 2 days. But the post office’s part takes at least that long again. I can tell you from hard-won personal experience this week that the post office did not consider 5 business days enough time for me to get one through applying through them, and that’s in Sydney where it’s only one day to deliver it to the passport office. So this is really more “dammit, just missed the 10 days cutoff” option than the “I’m travelling within the week!” option.

“But I am travelling within the week!” You need to book a passport interview at a capital city passport office, where they will take your documents and start your 2 working day countdown that second. Ring the passport office, eventually if you are patient with their phone tree you get through to an operator who will make you an appointment. You will get a passport 2 working days after that appointment. (The Passport Office is quite strict with themselves about working days. I did a passport interview Thursday, I have a receipt saying my passport is due for completion at 11:44am Monday!) I was told if your appointment is within those 2 working days to spare you may get promised one faster at the discretion of the passport officer who interviews you, but no promises at the time of booking.

However, again from hard-won personal experience, they could have a two or three day wait for an appointment, which puts you pretty much back at the post office’s timeline. Call them back daily to see if a slot has opened up: I originally had an appointment on Friday afternoon having been assured that Wednesday and Thursday were booked solid, but when I rang on Thursday morning they had an appointment available within two hours.

“But I’m travelling within the day!” Read Alex Kidman’s article. It sounds like the process is to turn up sans appointment and have at least one of a very pressing need or a very apologetic approach to them, and they may give you a slot freed by a no-show and can produce a passport within the day in some cases. Whirlpool, which you can usually rely upon to contain a gloomy bunch of know-it-alls looking forward to explaining how you’ve stuffed it all up, also has largely positive stories.

Proving citizenship

There are no hacks, this is a total pain in the butt and seems capable of holding up passport applications for years or forever.

I luckily have the most clear-cut claim: I was born in Australia before 20 August 1986, I have citizenship by right of birth alone. But even one of my children, who has the super-normal case of citizenship by right of Australian birth combined with two citizen parents at the time of his birth, had one set of documents rejected (incorrectly, in my opinion, but I don’t award passports). Ruth Ellison, a naturalised citizen, writes that she needed to add time to get documentation that was in her parents’ possession. Chally Kacelnik, after digging up evidence of her mother’s permanent residency at the time of her birth, still faced pushback as to its status. A Whirlpool poster, estranged from their parents and therefore unable to get them to provide documents proving their citizenship, seemed unable to prove citizenship by descent as of the end of their thread despite living in Australia their whole life.

I have the very limited consolation of a slight acquaintance with other country’s processes fairly recently and can report that they are often just as reliant on hoping that someone in the family is the type of person who flees countries with a complete set of personal identity documents and someone else who keeps a stash of passports belonging to people who’ve since died, and so on. That is, no consolation.

Posted in Politics and society, Travel | Tagged | 2 Comments

Saturday 9 June 2014

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

— Douglas Adams

I’ve decided the same applies more generally to life experiences. Anything that happens before you are 10 (20?) is the natural order of things and you should take it as read that it will probably happen practically every day.

Thus it was with today’s visit to the Australian Museum’s Tyrannosaurus exhibition. This isn’t New York; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more-or-less complete fossilised skeleton of a dinosaur before. (I was living in Orange when most of the Canowindra fish fossils were found, but… fish. I feel a bit bad for Canowindra: your teeny town gets a world-leading fossil discovery, except, it’s fish. Sure, now I’m interested. But now I’m not a kid.) But V is four, and so I guess he presumes he’s going to see a T. rex most months of his life from now on. It’s a good exhibit, I feel like Andrew and I should take a day off work and go and see it by ourselves, without a world-weary four year old in attendance.

The weather of the last few days has been very un-Sydney-like. Sydney weather likes to set in. It’s not just “mostly sunny”, it’s unrelenting non-stop ultraviolet being shot into your brain. It’s not just “showers”, it’s flash floods. But these last few days have been truly showers; about every thirty minutes a sudden dump of rain gets spat in from the ocean. Difficult to plan around.

We’ve continued with the trend of V’s social life eclipsing ours. This weekend we went to the pool in order to try and teach him to jump in the big pool (no), Tumbalong Park where he ran in the fountains despite it being the first weekend that feels like winter and it being just as cold as the big pool, Georgie’s second birthday party, the dinosaur exhibit and the bike playground.

This feels like, and is, way too much stuff, but V continues in his pattern of some years now of being very difficult to entertain when we’re inside our house. There’s a wide world out there, and he’d camp in it if he could. Hrm, now I have a horrible feeling camping is in our future. So a never ending series of expeditions is currently the lesser of two evils.

Meanwhile, in the future looms The Great and Terrible Business Trip of 2014, namely, me taking A to the US for business for a fortnight, leaving a week from tomorrow. Every time I think about it I realise there’s a new complication. I need to take 100% nursing compatible clothes (which overlap not at all with my preferred conference wear). I will need to be back in my hotel room every evening at 6pm-ish when she turns into a pumpkin, which will be a significant dent in conference socialising. I can’t use taxis for airport transfers because she would need a US-approved rear facing car seat for every one. I am not taking a stroller either, so I’ll be babywearing her non-stop.

Val asked me whether people had been giving me negative feedback about this trip; I replied that they have, but in a resigned “well, this is exactly the kind of thing we expect of you, Mary” way.

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Robot cars: why I’m both excited and worried

Maybe this is selection bias, but most people I know seem very underwhelmed by self-driving cars. I am whelmed! I hope it works out.

I should clarify, because I discovered when talking to my parents about this that the term “self-driving car” isn’t self-explanatory to everyone. To them, it meant something like “slightly better cruise control”, and seemed very unexciting. It may be clearer to say “robot car” or “robot taxi”. A self driving car is a car that does every driving task by itself. It decides on the route. It looks where it is going. It turns corners. It brakes. You could, at the end point of the development, lie on a bed asleep inside a car while it drives you where it’s going. It’s still not entirely clear (to me) that this is all feasible with likely technology, or that it will be legally acceptable, but it’s seeming more likely. After years of driving modified cars with added self-driving about, Google is making prototype cars for further development.

Incidentally, “robot car” is a lot easier to type than “self-driving cars”, so I’m going to adopt it for the rest of this entry.

Upsides of robot cars (why I’m excited)

Here’s what I envisage:

Less driving by humans (specifically, me). Most people who comment on cars love driving, which is why I suspect self-driving car discussions often spiral into “but driving is fun! no one will cede control over their favourite activity!” Well, I’m queuing up. It’s not that driving is never fun, but for me, but it’s frequently unfun, especially since it’s so often city driving. Most of the fun bits of driving could be replicated for me in dedicated arenas.

Time reclamation. I drove to Canberra on the Easter long weekend, got stuck in the worst traffic I’ve ever been in, and commented to my husband that my brain is somewhat over-powered to be spent deciding when to slightly and briefly depress an accelerator pedal. Less human time spent driving is more time spent reading, talking, composing, sleeping. Plus all kinds of hedonism.

Increased independence for ‘dependents’. Google’s publicity already talks about elderly people who have stopped driving. But I know other people who can’t drive. I live with two of them. They’re 4 months old, and 4 years old, respectively. The degree to which it is safe or healthy for children of those ages to be left to supervise themselves in robot cars is debatable, but by the time they’re say, 7? Sure, the car could drive them somewhere for fifteen minutes or half an hour. At 14 or 15? They can tell it where to go. (15 year olds can’t drive in NSW, but when I was 15, I was independently mobile on foot and on bike, and occasionally in planes, trains and taxis.)

Two other people I’ve personally known who can’t drive had a seizure disorder and limited vision respectively, and there are lots of medical and psychological reasons that limit or prohibit driving, many of which would be compatible with being sole passenger in a car.

Speaking of psychological reasons, while I believe I am a driver of roughly average ability now and I now don’t seem to find it more stressful than others do, I hated learning how to drive, was petrified, and was a frustrating and frightening student. If I had equal mobility without ever having gone through that, I would not have. (And I think neither would my husband, who didn’t learn to drive until I taught him.) I know quite a few people in this category, including some unable to use cars to this day.

More comfortable trips. The possibility of being driven around while lying down or in a comfortable chair or, for that matter, while standing or exercising or drinking with friends. (Although see ‘Humans as cargo’ below.)

Fewer cars. Cars that can come and pick you up should increase utilisation of cars, as in, there will be less cars total, and less empty cars at any given time. This diminishes the use of mined resources, and has a carbon impact (the manufacture of cars has a substantial carbon footprint).

Lighter cars. With a vastly improved safety profile (which I am taking as read, otherwise I think the whole project is null and void) the weight required for modern safety features in cars can be ditched.

Safer cars. This is an assumption, but really, they’re not going to launch at all if they aren’t significantly safer. So if it happens at all, deaths and injuries in road travel should fall to near zero if robot cars become ubiquitous.

Land reclamation. Fewer cars means being able to reclaim some of the very significant amount of private and public land use currently devoted to parking cars.

Potential significant fuel savings. Inefficient human driving presumably has some direct fuel cost. In addition, robot cars can spread their usage more evenly over different routes, further saving time and fuel. Diminished vehicle weight saves fuel.

Lifting of speed restrictions. Robot cars can’t overcome some physical difficulties here (non-linear increases in power consumption with speed, increased braking distances with speed) but they can overcome the human error that makes high speed driving dangerous. Trips should become somewhat faster with a high density of robot cars on the road.

Downsides of robot cars (or why I second-guess myself)

Here’s the tweet that inspired this entry:

Even ignoring the possibility of political decisions inhibiting my utopia above, I think there are significant potential downsides, some of which are likely, some of which are hard to model.

Job losses. At the driving end: taxi drivers, truck drivers, chauffeurs, public transport drivers. If less cars were manufactured, a huge number of jobs involved in manufacture, in supplying manufacturers, and in supplying and selling cars. It’s likely the cars will tend to have reduced wear and tear, so mechanics and their supply chains would be affected. If road wear-and-tear and fuel usage is reduced, people employed in road maintenance and in the massive fuel industry are affected. All raw materials and their supply chain are affected.

Which is all very well for me, I’m not in the transportation industry. But we as a society suck at dealing with the people who are made redundant by technological progress, and we’re not showing signs of getting better at it even as more and more work is threatened with redundancy.

Resources use and carbon output may rise. With the increased ability of people to use cars (by adding children and medically unfit drivers, and some unwilling drivers, to self-directed car users) comes the risk of additional aggregate kilometres travelled by car with negative consequences for carbon etc.

Shortened lifespan of existing cars. If there was a fairly fast transition at any point, human-operated cars then in existence become obsolete fairly rapidly, which is a resources and waste nightmare exceeding the flat-screen TV transition environmental disaster.

Longer commutes. While commuting might be less miserable per minute, it’s entirely possible that commensurate increases in hours spent commuting might occur (or be demanded by the workplace), which for most people is a negative because of less time spent with family and friends, and a rather insidious negative at that (people apparently underestimate how bad it is, because it’s regular, something I originally learned about in Big house, big commute?, together with the idea of the “triangle of happiness”).

Unpredictable and likely bad disruption of public (cheap) transport. I don’t personally much buy into the intrinsic virtues of contact with strangers while travelling. (The “public” in “public transport”.) I don’t mind if opportunities to talk to strangers — or ignore them studiously in order to compensate for being in each other’s personal space — are diminished. I do mind access issues though. I would assume that the movement of currently unfit or unwilling drivers into robot cars would diminish use of public transport and therefore its availability. At the same time, I assume that individual robot car use will not be universally affordable (if primarily offered by for-profit entities as is likely). There’s no guarantee that, with presumed middle-class flight to robot cars, any longer distance transport will be available matching current public transport prices and coverage.

Unpredictable and likely bad availability of robot cars for less privileged users. If the safety profile is good enough, we might be able to eliminate child restraints in their current form, but there’s no guarantee cars will be available to fit wheel users, large people (tall, fat or both, although tall is more likely because it’s a male-associated trait), and large family groups. There’s no guarantee that non-literate people, or visually impaired people, or people who don’t speak the local majority language, will be able to operate the user interfaces. (I’d bet against, in fact.)

Privacy and autonomy. These are under substantial threat. Consider existing cases. Car sharing schemes track your location on GPS. Speed cameras record all passing vehicles, not just speeding ones. (Such data has been used as evidence in criminal trials in NSW.) Many transport smart card agencies hand over individual usage data (where you got on and off public transport) upon request to police, without a warrant. Robot cars have potential for all these abuses, plus the ability for other people to take over control of the car you’re in.

Known unknowns

There’s also some intensely unpredictable things:

Unpredictable disruption of places where people congregate. I do consider the existence of spaces serving as, essentially, town squares or village greens, a positive, and just as private cars significantly changed their location and availability, robot cars would too. I don’t know how and to what effect.

Humans become cargo. This is already more or less true in aviation, and it hasn’t played out so comfortably, with comfort tending to diminish in return for cheaper seats. But flying is fuel intensive (and the distances sometimes simply ridiculous). So it’s difficult to work out what Sydney to Canberra or Sydney to Melbourne would look like and it depends partly on power costs. Would a vehicle drive me to Canberra on its own? Would it go and hitch itself to some kind of road-train? Would a pod containing me be loaded onto a truck? Would I board a robot bus but otherwise have more or less the current bus experience? What would the effects on fuel use be of various models? (See I Spent 28 Hours on a Bus. I Loved It.) What would rich people do? What would poor people do?

Cargo becomes atomised. Conversely, when is the preference for large cargo loads (B-double trucks, trains full of coal) partly an issue of needing a human operator? Would those loads split into smaller units to be delivered on an as needed basis? When and at what point in the delivery process?

Increased drug use. Maybe? One inhibiting factor on drug use (the need to drive home) will be lifted. I’m not anti-drug use as a matter of principle, so this is not necessarily a negative to me.

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Killing OWOOT

I founded Oceania Women of Open Tech (OWOOT) — a group for women in open technology in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands — in 2011. And today, after some discussion on its mailing list over the last week, I closed it due to lack of activity. I’m sad it didn’t continue in the way that all endings are sad, but I’m not especially sad. Not everything works out and I think it’s healthier to wind up things than to have everyone wonder what’s happening with them and whether any change is coming in the future. Especially when you consider the cookie licking problem. My moribund project could be inhibiting someone’s new project, simply by existing!

Speaking of my projects, or rather, things I founded, the Haecksen miniconference at linux.conf.au is now separate from OWOOT, and continues to exist for the time being. (Although I am told attendance was low at linux.conf.au 2014, and the current Haecksen volunteers might also reconsider it in a year or two.) Because there’s no longer an OWOOT list on which to coordinate it, I asked Linux Australia to found a new list. To help organise Haecksen in future, please join the Haecksen organisers mailing list. To attend Haecksen, watch the public Haecksen website or the Linux Australia mailing lists for information.

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