AUC Conference 2005 – The Arrival

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I’m going to have to cover this in multiple parts, since there’s so much to write about, and I’m a very verbose writer in any case. Part 1 in your local newsagency for the low starter price of $9.95. 😉

The conference was placed in the Wrest Point Hotel in Hobart. Attendees flew in on the Saturday and Sunday, for the conference which kicked off in earnest Monday morning, and ran through to Wednesday afternoon.

My silly mistake to start off with was in choosing flights. There were only a few available, as the booking was to be done in just a few large groups, for efficiency and economy. The selections were made months ago, and I didn’t realise at the time that the conference fell unto to the mid-semester break. Thus, I mistakenly thought I would be missing uni during it, and so endeavoured to return as quickly as possible. That meant a flight out Wednesday night, and a silly early flight Sunday morning – departing 8:25am, to be precise. That meant, what with all the check-in and so forth to be done, that I was up at 5:00am, to be on the way to the airport by 6. My father drove me there, which provided a good opportunity to catch up, as I hadn’t been seen much for the past few weeks, on account of various uni committements. As it turns out, the trip at that hour on a Sunday was uninterrupted, and we arrived before 7am. So, we had a second breakfast and chatted for a while, before I eventually went through the metal detectors and x-rays to the boarding lounges.

I should add at this point that I am most definitely not a morning person. In fact, getting up before 6am usually makes me feel ill, as it did in this case. It wasn’t until lunch time that the “oooh, I think I’m going to throw up” sensation dissipated. Needless to say I wasn’t much with it all of Sunday.

It wasn’t long ago that I was flying to San Francisco for WWDC, and that wasn’t the first time I’d flown by any means, so the novelty had worn off somewhat. Still, I think I’ll always love that pushed-to-the-back-of-your-seat feeling as the plane first takes off, and will hopefully always appreciate and admire the amazing view one always gets from a plane. The world looks so simple and small, even from only a few kilometres up. I was one seat away from a window, 6E, so I could still see out the window. I sat next to a very pleasant older lady – and I say older in the nicest possible way, since she was probably in her fifties or possibly even sixties, but was mentally a far cry from the stereotypical senior – and on the other side a web designer, probably in his thirties or so. As is always my way, I can’t for the life of me remember either of their names. I’d forget my head if it weren’t screwed on.

Anyway, they were quite pleasant company down to Hobart. It was interesting the route we took – heading west for a wide berth around the city, then cutting across Rosebud (or thereabouts) on the Mornington Peninsula, to then turn south and cross over Philip Island. It was sporadically cloudy most of the way, so I didn’t see all that much. I would have loved to have seen more of Tasmania as we flew over, given it is reputably such a beautiful scenic place, but alas I was granted only a few brief looks as we descended into Hobart International Airport.

It’s odd how changes in pressure can effect you. Having had the flu (or somesuch) for nearly two weeks by the time of this flight, my sinuses were quite well blocked. As we flew up and decompressed slightly, my sinuses cleared very nicely, and I was having a great time. Of course, once you start to recompress on the descent, well… it can get icky. More worrisome was the pain I experienced in my neck – feeling very stiff and as if all the blood was at a very high pressure. It almost felt like I was heading towards passing out. I nearly called for assistance from the air hostesses, but didn’t want to worry anyone – most of all myself, I suspect. So, I toughed it out. It lasted only a few minutes, although after landing I did still feel a little stiff. We did descend very fast, I thought – a sentiment shared by many others, including those on other flights that day. Perhaps it is just the way it goes flying into Hobart.

But in any case, I did arrive safe and sound at Hobart International Airport. Which, if you’ve been there, you’ll no doubt find an immensely humorous name. As someone later joked, they could barely fit the name on the building. The first thing I noticed was that the only aircraft in sight, parked right under the name, was a two-seater light plane and a tiny Leerjet-style craft. I half expected the mayor and some locals to be greeting us in our great huge flying device. 🙂

Quite a few people were confused once they walked off the plane – which of course meant down the steps onto the tarmac, and then the short distance into the one and only building. I myself walked in and nearly all the way out of the airport before I realised that, yes, really, that was it. Several people were audibly confused that they could not see any baggage carousels. As it turns out, the “shed” we were in sufficed as baggage pick-up. 50 feet or so away it was hauled off the plane onto one of those baggage trains, which was then driven into the shed alongside us. We then watched for a few minutes while a beagle was instructed to thoroughly trample our belongings, before finally being able to pick them up and depart.

I found myself onto one of the standard airport<->hotel buses quite quickly, and was on my way. It was quite funny – there were at least 30 AUC people on that flight, possibly more. Indeed, we may well have consisted of the majority of the passengers. Yet I was not forward enough to introduce myself – it seemed everyone else knew everyone else, and in my groggy early-morning state, I wasn’t mentally equipped for actual conversation. My iPod served as a convenient escape.

Anyway, the situation on the bus was more or less the same as the plane – in fact I think only three or four of the 15ish people on the bus weren’t heading to the AUC conference. I found myself sitting just in front of two rather attractive women (older than me a little, I think, but well within my interest). Now, I’ve never been to an AUC conference before, but I do know geek events in general, and knew the odds of any woman being involved is pretty slim. So I presumed these two were unrelated to us. A pity – of course they were attending the conference, and I should have used that fact to generate some appropriate line. But, poor shy old me, no, I couldn’t summon the courage. In any case, I was enthralled with the scenery as we drove from the airport, through Hobart, out to the Wrest Point.

I must say that Hobart is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. It reminded me a little bit of Sydney, only without the snobs and much nicer, and quainter. It’s so hilly, as is most of Tasmania, that nearly every house has a beautiful view over the Derwent River (which is bogus – it’s salt water and no more a river than the Yarra is to Port Philip bay, but anyway)… although I did notice that there were extraordinarily few blocks larger than about a quarter of an acre, which seemed extremely odd. Even the brand new housing estates we passed on the way, which were a good 10 minutes east of Hobart centre, were poky little quarter-acre affairs. Very strange.

Now, the check-in time for the hotel is officially 2pm or somesuch, which meant up to four hours of waiting around, potentially. They had a concierge for baggage storage, so it would have been all right, but as it turns out I was lucky enough to have a room already ready, at 10:30am or so, which meant I was straight up to drop of my crap and relax… which involved a little bit of poking around on my Powerbook – more in a moment – followed by a nice healthy nap for two hours. That brought my total sleep up to somewhere in the vicinity of seven hours, which got me through the rest of the night.

What really stunned me more than anything else that day was the view from the hotel room. When I came in the shade curtains were drawn shut… I opened them and was blown away. I was on the 9th floor, facing east, more or less. To the north I could look up the river to Hobart centre and the bridge, and to the south down out towards the Tasman sea. I was actually laughing out loud to myself at this, thinking that the AUC had really done us up sweet. I sat for a good ten minutes or more just admiring the view. I even messaged my mother, father and Bobo to tell them I’d arrived safely, and that the view was fantastic. They all thought it quite uncharacteristic, which emphasises how amazing it was.

Of course, being a true geek I inevitably whipped out the Powerbook and iSight, to try and capture the beautiful view. Unfortunately my iSight has decided not to do infinite focus anymore, so it’s all a little blurry. 🙁 The photos are available here.

So, after a little nap and once settled in, I head downstairs and wandered around a bit, to get my bearings and see what the hotel had to offer. There were numerous restaurants and bars, a very nice outdoor area (as shown in the photos), and of course the casino areas. I never ended up going into the casino proper, although I’d wanted to – apparently no one else was willing to spend $10 or so for a half hours entertainment. 🙂

Eventually of course 5:30 rocked around, and it was time to the welcoming reception… which I’ll write about in the next instalment. 🙂

Introduction

Array

I’ve been working with the AUC for nearly three years now. And by working I mean, a student developer sponsored by them. In 2003 I received a seeding grant to develop a system for distributed processing. The area isn’t an original one, but some of my focuses were – that the system work in an ad-hoc fashion, requiring no central administration, no complex configuration, and with high security manageable by even the most basic users.

There was also an interest in very low latency operation, such that interactive programs (e.g. Photoshop) could be parallelised with this system, and deliver direct, visible benefits.

They extended the seeding grant – which included loan of a G3 iBook and other resources – through 2004. In 2005, I applied for and received the first AUC Student Scholarship (of three available, for the first time, in 2005). This was essentially to continue on with my work, but encompassed much more – the scholarship included a trip to WWDC in 2005 (which I’ll write about in much detail soon) and has “blossomed” into an internship at Apple this summer.

I certainly owe the AUC a great deal of appreciation and thanks. Without their support my project wouldn’t have gone very far at all, and certainly wouldn’t be alive today. Thanks to them I’ve managed to survive without a part time job during the uni year, which has meant both more time for my projects as well as uni.

I’d like to start this little stream of my journal off with tales from the AUC’s 2005 conference in Hobart, from which I returned just two days ago. So much of it is still fresh, that I’d like to get set in pixels before I lose it forever. I’ll then tackle WWDC last June, from which I gained so much and still remember like it was yesterday.

How to Convert your Honest Customers to Criminals in 3 Easy Steps

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sigh It never ceases to amaze me as to the stupidity of large corporations, particularly governments. Everyone not living under a rock will be well aware of the RIAA and MPAA’s recent approach to increasing revenue – i.e. to sue anyone they can prove listened to music they publish.

Of course, lucky me being Australian means I’m to date immune to such silliness, since the prosecutions haven’t quite made it out to our little island yet – at least, not in any numbers. Nonetheless, it seems others have been watching the RIAA with admiration, and have devised crackpot schemes of their own.

This is the part where I say “It all started when…”.. but that would be misleading… this has been building, as the sum of many events, for many years.

For as long as I care to remember I’m relied on public transport to get around. And all was well. Unfortunately, the last few years I’ve had to rely on it more than I would like – while originally it was just the school bus twice a day, which was essentially a charter and always ran (and on time), in the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of summer work… which means out of the house by 7am so I can enjoy a couple of hours of public transport to work, and again in reverse at night. This would be all good and well, except it very rarely was.

I first really started on “public” (non-chartered & school) transport when I went to uni in 2002. I would travel down from uni to my old home to see my girlfriend, and back, each weekend. The trip entailed two trains and at least one bus (with either a 20 minute walk or another bus thrown in). It should have taken about 2.5 hours maximum. In reality it frequently took four… trains would be late, cancelled, etc…. in fact, for a long time there was a period from around 7-8pm on Friday nights where there was not a single Frankston line train… the number of times I would arrive just moments (literally seconds, in some cases) after the previous Frankston train left, to be stuck at Flinders street for more than an hour… grrrr…

But this was only once a week, and I was forgiving for the most part. Things weren’t too bad most of the time, and the novelty of public transport was only just starting to wear off.

Fast forward to the end of 2003, when I was working out near Tullamarine Airport, and staying with my Aunt in Elwood. There were some serious storms lashing Melbourne, lasting for several days. Lots of flooding, bits of lightning, the whole bit. Some train lines were actually damaged by flood water (I believe the Hurstbridge and one or two others). But not the Sandringham line, which is the one I used twice a day at that point. Nonetheless, inexplicably, trains on that line were suddenly being cancelled in droves, and the few that were running were extraordinarily late.

Numerous times (as in, at least half a dozen that stand out) two or three trains were cancelled in a row. At five in the afternoon, during the peak rush. And through some attempt at universal comedy, when a train finally did turn up – some hour or more later – it would be just three carriages. Three carriages. Three whole carriages, carrying at best 200 people each, for more than a thousand people now stuck waiting on the platform. And that’s just at Flinders Street, let alone the other four stations in the city loop. As you can imagine, there was some level of crankiness at this.

Nonetheless, for reasons beyond my comprehension, I continued to buy tickets every day, and never really voiced my frustration. Well, not to Metlink or affiliates, anyway. There was no compensation ever issued, not even an apology. The official line, I believe, was that the line had been effected by the storms. Funny how there was no visible damage to anything along that line. Even at the worst of the storm, where parts of Glenhuntly road were two or more feet under water, there was no evidence of disruption or damage to the Sandringham train line.

But anyway, I digress. The point is, ever since that storm, public transport in Melbourne has gone to shit. The next summer I worked in Mulgrave, catching the Frankston train up to Chelsea or Edithvale, then a bus up Springvale road. Now the bus itself was a disaster, but then, Springvale road is horrid at times. I was often late by half an hour or more, but, you can’t expect too much when travelling along a congested road like that. While I hated the dodgy commute along that stretch, it is very hard to fault the bus company – they are at the mercy of the traffic they are part of.

Such excuses hold no water when it comes to trains, however. Why it was that my desired train each afternoon was cancelled just about every other day has never been revealed. How Connex (or Bayside Trains, or whoever ran it at the time) could justify their claimed 95%+ punctuality was never explained. I think it must involve quantum…. certainly it makes no sense by the traditional laws of this universe.

Anyway… yet another shitty summer of bullshit service – or lack thereof – and another cranky but honest me, dutifully buying tickets each day, wasting away my money. Now, by the end of this I was skipping the odd ticket or two, if the train was unduly late or cancelled. But by and large, I was still a sucker.

Then there is Yarra Trams. My god what a glorious company. I’ve caught the tram pretty much every weekday since the start of this year, 2005. Down a dozen stops or so to uni and back, sometimes twice or more a day. Now unfortunately in my first week of this, I was still entirely jaded from my summer experience with the Frankston line trains. So I choose not to buy any tickets, requiring first that Yarra Trams prove they deserved my fare. Ironically enough, they did seem to, for the first few weeks at least. Unfortunately for me, my timing was poor – and so I was collected up all nice and pretty by one of the marauding gangs of ticket inspectors (there were about 14 in this case, from memory… for a total of about 9 people on the tram). I confessed I had plenty of change, had chosen not to buy a ticket, and hadn’t been doing so all week. And I was on my way.

It was months later before I got the infringement notice in the mail. I wasn’t all too impressed, but I could only concede I was at least partially at fault – if nothing else I was misplacing my anger at the trains, inappropriately and unfairly to Yarra Trams. From the second week onwards (after this first incident), I bought tickets, just like I used to. I now have a nice stack of some 150 or so to date (only two thirds of the way through the year, too). So I wrote back to the Department of Infrastructure (DOI) and apologised, and offered them a compromise. I would pay for all the tickets I had not purchased that week, including the government subsidy that Yarra Trams would have received from those tickets. Now, I should also have provided for the costs associated with issuing that notice, but at this point I didn’t (I did later however, although at time of writing there has been no response to that offer).

While waiting for a response from that first letter, I had the great fortune to be caught again without a ticket, while travelling into Melbourne for a friend’s 18th (which was at Manchester Lane incidentally, a very nice jazz bar). The problem, you see, was not that I wouldn’t buy a ticket – but that I did not have sufficient small change to do so.

For those not familiar with our trams here in sunny Melbourne, the machines on them only accept coins (even though they sell tickets costing up to and over $5). They also issue tickets that are immediately validated. Thus you cannot buy tickets ahead of time. Now, I knew I was going to pass through Parliament station in the city, where there were machines that accepted notes. So, I wasn’t stressed about it – I’d get into the city, buy my ticket, and all would be well.

Unfortunately, the DOI is very much against common sense such as this. Their official opinion is that I should not have ever stepped on the tram – I should have told my friend to get stuffed and not gone to her party. That or walked – it couldn’t be more than five or six hours each way. How kind of them.

So anyway, I was pleasant to the inspectors, who reciprocated in kind, and all was well. I was stressed about the possible implications of the infringement, but common sense said quite simply that it would be worked out with a minimum of fuss. Once into the city I purchased my ticket, as intended. (incidentally, I discovered that there weren’t any trains from Parliament to Flinders street at this point – only 8 or 9pm on a weeknight – and so I wasted nearly an hour getting down to the bar…. perhaps I should have noted this Omen).

Of course, only a few weeks later an infringement notice arrives. At least they’re getting prompter. I wrote back and stated quite simply that I had always intended to buy a ticket (as stated to the officer at the time), I did buy a ticket, and here are the serial numbers etc from it.

It was at this point that things started to go wrong. See, really I should have coped the first fine on the chin and paid it, if only to get it over with. I’m still against the arbitrary $150 sum on principle, since it’s clearly not at all related to actual expense or losses of the company in question – they get a flat $20 regardless of what the actual infringement was – but… all the stress that’s resulted isn’t worth it. Which I’m sure the DOI is well aware of, and relies on for their little racket to run smoothly.

Anyway, another few months later, while all this was still in limbo waiting on a response to my letters, I got caught again in an almost identical situation. The ticket I needed was just under $5, and I didn’t have nearly enough small change, but had about $50 in notes (including a $5 note, which would have done nicely). I’m still waiting on the infringement notice for that one. On recent precedence, it should be arriving any day now. I’ve grown tired of being pleasant with them about all this, so I look forward to writing my reply to that one.

So the problem now is that I’m facing at least $450 in fines for ultimately $11 of ticket evasion (of which they’re only officially concerned about $2.20). Not to discount all the stress I’ve been under as a result, which has been very poorly timed and seems to be visibly detrimental to my health (the last few weeks I’ve been unable to shake a flu-like illness, which is extremely uncharacteristic for me). And then there’s all the time I’ve wasted dealing with it all. And that’s the ultimate irony, isn’t it – the wasted time. That’s what all this started with. They persist in wasting my time with their unacceptable service, and have done literally for years. If I paid in advance for a taxi, and it turned up two hours later, I’d demand my god damn money back – and probably more. I wouldn’t expect to be charged an additional $150 for the privilege of them being pricks.

But in all this, the most interesting thing was the response I got back from the DOI. They dealt with my first two letters together, since they basically ignored everything I said anyway. I suspect they never even read the letters, since their reply seems to be oh so much standard boilerplate. I’ll post the exact text at a later date when it’s available to me (not at home as I write), but to paraphrase, they stated that my honest and good intentions were not in question, but the Law is the Law, and they want all my money.

You see, this is what happens when you create these bastardised amorphous blob companies, that pretend they’re private when it suites them – i.e. when their service is unacceptable to a reasonable public standard – and then that they’re public (i.e. government owned) when that likewise suites them – such as this case, where they have the legislated power to level a criminal prosecution. A criminal prosecution. As in, the one where if you lose you have a honest to god criminal record, which will prevent you being easily employed in future, travelling overseas, or ever likely working at any A-list companies, such as my own interest, Apple Computer.

“I see you have a criminal conviction…” “Yes, I didn’t buy a $2.20 ticket, although I did pay nearly a thousand dollars of compensation later. I like to be extra altruistic, you know…”

So, they want to ruin my life as much as they possibly can, over $2.20. And they’re really sorry, and really sympathetic and all, but you know – the Law is the Law.

So what are my options? Well, I’ve already done their “independent review” (yeah, right) and got their boilerplate response (which probably came directly from accounting). I could go to trial over it. Let’s see what the odds of that are, as I understand it. The trial would be in a County court. These courts do not have the power to override any written law. Their job is to interpret the law directly and apply it to the case in question to determine where the fault (if any) lies. Now, the government has done a real pretty job with their Transport Act, which governs all this ticketing crap. From the outset it was almost impossible to contest on pure legal grounds. Worse, a few years ago someone took the issue to the Supreme Court, where the laws *can* be changed and reinterpreted. Unfortunately, the judge at the time was apparently a real arsehole, and not only favoured the DOI, but redefined the law so as to be even more stupidly hard to contest. Nowadays, it’s considered pretty much impossible to fight the DOI. They effectively have near unlimited power to do as they please, and have demonstrated countless times they’re more than willing to disregard morality, common sense, ethics, the public good and their duty of care.

My only other option is to take the issue to the Public Transport Ombudsman, a supposedly truly independent entity (both from Yarra Trams and the DOI) with the legal power to overrule any decision. And that’s where it stands today – I’m about to issue my complaint to the PTO. However, given my previous experience with these “independent” ombudsmen, I’m not holding any hope.

Sidenote: the background on that is, I had god-awful telephone service from Australia’s government-mandated telephone monopoly, whereby I couldn’t even maintain a 300 baud modem connection for more than a few minutes… seriously. This persisted for years. They even acknowledged that there was a massive fault effecting [probably] hundreds of subscribers in my area. But they refused to fix it. I wrote to the appropriate ombudsman for that industry, and more than being ignored – I was actually told that if I pursued my inquiries and complaints, the ombudsman would launch legal action against me. At least, that’s how I interpreted their letter. I know it sounds crazy – even I am hesitant to believe I’m remembering it correctly – but I do remember re-reading the letter over and over again in bewilderment, not understanding how the hell the world could go so quickly to a hand basket. I wish I could still find that letter – it’s probably around somewhere; I never would have thrown it out knowingly. I should frame it as first testament to this great nation.

Anyway, at this point I’m pretty much royally fucked. No two ways about it. In the grand scheme of things $450 is no big deal. I certainly can afford to pay it, without enduring any “unnecessary hardship” – aside from the fact that it’s $450 of my hard earned money. Of course most of the damage has already been done, which is the stress and wasted time. The problem I have is that this is pure bullshit. I cannot in good conscience fuel their little protection racket, knowing that hundreds or even thousands of others like me will bear the harsher consequences if I capitulate.

The sad thing is, ultimately the joke will be on Yarra Trams, and Connex, and all others involved in Melbourne’s public transport. Because if I do have to pay for more than the first fine (which, as I conceded, is relatively fair) I’ll have only a few more options:

1) Move overseas and forget this whole god damn country. I’m going to work at Apple this summer as an intern, and if they invited me to stay or come back, at this point I’d be gone so quickly it’d make the DOI’s head spin.
2) Get a car and never use public transport again. Their loss in future ticket purchases will eventually outweigh whatever they steal from me now.
3) Keep using public transport and not buy tickets. I’m one of very few people I know who do buy tickets – most of my friends thing I’m sort of strange for doing so. It’s entirely trivial to avoid ticket inspectors and other means of regulation – I’ve done it sometimes simply because I don’t want to waste the time being held up by them. Within a few years I’d more than make back the money they took, and probably more.

[Note: I can also get at least $70 a fortnight from Centrelink via Youth Allowance or similar, which I haven’t done since the start of the year, since I don’t need the government’s support anymore and don’t feel right about accepting their handouts. I’d rather not go this route, however, since it’s the whole collateral damage thing… in my experience Centrelink have been quite nice, albeit tricky to work with at times.]

So, there you have it. How to turn a paying, honest, well-meaning customer into a [possibly convicted] criminal, in just a few short months. Well done, DOI & Metlink. Well fucking done indeed.