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Published in Engineers Without Borders Magazine

Engineers Without Borders asked me to write something for their Humanitarian Engineering magazine about One Laptop per Child. Here is what I wrote.

The school bell rings, and the children filter into the classroom. Each is holding an XO – their own personal learning device.

Students from Doomadgee often use their XOs for outdoors education. The sunlight-readable screen
combined with the built-in camera allow for hands-on exploration of their environment.

This is no ordinary classroom. As if by magic, the green and white XOs automatically see each other as soon as they are started up, allowing children to easily share information and collaborate on activities together. The kids converse on how they can achieve the tasks at hand. One girl is writing a story on her XO, and simultaneously on the same screen she can see the same story being changed by a boy across the room. Another group of children are competing in a game that involves maths questions.

Children in Kiwirrkurra, WA, collaborate on an activity with help from teachers.

Through the XO, the learning in this classroom has taken on a peer-to-peer character. By making learning more fun and engaging, children are better equipped to discover and pursue their interests. Through collaboration and connectivity, they can exchange knowledge with their peers and with the world. In the 21st century, textbooks should be digital and interactive. They should be up-to-date and locally relevant. They should be accessible and portable.

Of course, the teacher’s role remains vital, and her role has evolved into that of a facilitator in this knowledge network. She is better placed to provide more individual pathways for learning. Indeed the teacher is a learner as well, as the children quickly adapt to the new technology and learn skills that they can teach back.

A teacher in Jigalong, WA, guides a workgroup of children in their class.

Helping to keep the classroom session smoothly humming along are children who have proven themselves to be proficient with assisting their classmates and fixing problems (including repairing hardware). These kids have taken part in training programmes that award them for their skills around the XO. In the process, they are learning important life skills around problem solving and teamwork.

Dozens of students in Doomadgee State School are proficient in fixing XO hardware.

This is all part of the One Education experience, an initiative from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia. This educational programme provides a holistic educational scaffolding around the XO, the laptop developed by the One Laptop per Child Association that has its roots in the internationally-acclaimed MIT Media Lab in the USA.

The XO was born from a desire to empower each and every child in the world with their own personal learning device. Purpose-built for young children and using solid open source software, the XO provides an ideal platform for classroom learning. Designed for outdoors, with a rugged design and a high-resolution sunlight-readable screen, education is no longer confined to a classroom or even to the school grounds. Learning time needn’t stop with the school bell – many children are taking their XOs home. Also important is the affordability and full repairability of the devices, making it cost-effective versus non-durable and ephemeral items such as stationery, textbooks and other printed materials. There are over 3 million XOs in distribution, and in some countries (such as Uruguay) every child owns one.

A One Education classroom in Kenya.

One Education’s mission is to provide educational opportunities to every child, no matter how remote or disadvantaged. The digital divide is a learning divide. This can be conquered through a combination of modern technology, training and support, provided in a manner that empowers local schools and communities. The story told above is already happening in many classrooms around the country and the world.

A One Education classroom in northern Thailand.

With teacher training often being the Achilles’ heel of technology programmes in the field of education, One Education focuses only on teachers who have proven their interest and aptitude through the completion of a training course. Only then are they eligible to receive XOs (with an allocation of spare parts) into their classroom. Certified teachers are eligible for ongoing support from OLPC Australia, and can acquire more hardware and parts as required.

As a not-for-profit, OLPC Australia works with sponsors to heavily subsidise the costs of the One Education programme for low socio-economic status schools. In this manner, the already impressive total cost of ownership can be brought down even further.

High levels of teacher turnover are commonplace in remote Australian schools. By providing courses online, training can be scalable and cost-effective. Local teachers can even undergo further training to gain official trainer status themselves. Some schools have turned this into a business – sending their teacher-trainers out to train teachers in other schools.

Students in Geeveston in Tasmania celebrate their attainment of XO-champion status, recognising
their proficiency in using the XO and their helpfulness in the classroom.

With backing from the United Nations Development Programme, OLPC are tackling the Millennium Development Goals by focusing on Goal 2 (Achieve Universal Primary Education). The intertwined nature of the goals means that progress made towards this goal in turn assists the others. For example, education on health can lead to better hygiene and lower infant mortality. A better educated population is better empowered to help themselves, rather than being dependent on hand-outs. For people who cannot attend a classroom (perhaps because of remoteness, ethnicity or gender), the XO provides an alternative. OLPC’s focus on young children means that children are becoming engaged in their most formative years. The XO has been built with a minimal environmental footprint, and can be run off-grid using alternate power sources such as solar panels.

One Education is a young initiative, formed based on experiences learnt from technology deployments in Australia and other countries. Nevertheless, results in some schools have been staggering. Within one year of XOs arriving in Doomadgee State School in northern Queensland, the percentage of Year 3 pupils meeting national literacy standards leapt from 31% to 95%.

A girl at Doomadgee State School very carefully removes the screen from an XO.

2013 will see a rapid expansion of the programme. With $11.7m in federal government funding, 50,000 XOs will be distributed as part of One Education. These schools will be receiving the new XO Duo (AKA XO-4 Touch), a new XO model developed jointly with the OLPC Association. This version adds a touch-screen user experience while maintaining the successful laptop form factor. The screen can swivel and fold backwards over the keyboard, converting the laptop into a tablet. This design was chosen in response to feedback from educators that a hardware keyboard is preferred to a touch-screen for entering large amounts of information. As before, the screen is fully sunlight-readable. Performance and battery life have improved significantly, and it is fully repairable as before.

As One Education expands, there are growing demands on OLPC Australia to improve the offering. Being a holistic project, there are plenty of ways in which we could use help, including in education, technology and logistics. We welcome you to join us in our quest to provide educational opportunities to the world’s children.

Cannes Lions award for OLPC Australia

OLPC Australia have been awarded a Bronze Lion at this year’s Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, the advertising counterpart of the Cannes Film Festival.

I think this is fantastic recognition for a Free Software project, especially one that is focused on assisting children in some of the most remote parts of the world. I feel honoured to have been part of this success.

We’re happy for people to get involved to help us in our mission. If you’d like to participate, especially (for me) in the technical field, please get in touch with me or contact OLPC Australia through our Web site.

What’s the big deal?

I don’t get it. In a community where openness is prized, some have seen it fit to criticise that very tenet. In the world of FOSS, bug trackers are laid open for all to see (and contribute to), and mailing lists are a hive of discussion and innovation.

So why is it such a bad thing when we openly discuss the nature of our community, and the governance thereof? Kevin Rudd was widely praised for his promises to promote open government (we’re still waiting, Kevin).

To put any uncertainty to rest: Linux Australia is in great shape. We just had yet another successful linux.conf.au and have built up a substantial pot of savings, all in the face of a global financial meltdown. We are indeed in an enviable position, and we could not have done it had we not stayed true to our beliefs. Linux Australia is defined by its community support and participation.

Can we do better? Of course we can. What I’ve tried to articulate is that the best means of doing that is by scaling our community. To use a code analogy, I effectively posted a public bug report and invited the community to help find solutions. You don’t see that level of transparency from many other organisations, and I for one am very proud of that.

The FOSS community in Australia will continue to grow and thrive — anybody who went to linux.conf.au should be convinced of that. The bazaar feel is stronger than ever, and Linux Australia will continue to hold a vital role in stimulating and facilitating that development. But to do so in a manner that best suits the community’s interests requires some deliberation, planning and communication with the very community that it seeks to assist. What’s wrong with that?

If only my local MP was as in touch with his constituents…

LotD: OpenAustralia, open source goodness applied to government

Participation in the Nation

It looks like I’ve opened up a can of worms. Last week I bemoaned about the low voter participation in Linux Australia (LA) elections. I spent considerable energy at linux.conf.au (LCA) in Hobart publicising the issue and canvassing opinion from community members. This culminated in a lightning talk titled ‘YOU PEOPLE SUCK’*, where I angrily chastised the community for not participating in Linux Australia. The fury was in jest, but the call to arms was not.

It seems now that the media has grabbed a hold of the matter. Frankly, I’m glad that this issue has been brought to the fore. It has been a catalyst for contemplation and debate, which in my opinion is the hallmark of an open community. In my chats with various people over the matter, a few reasons crop up. These aren’t all necessarily true, but if they are believed by a substantial section of our community, they’d might as well be.

  • I don’t want to pay anything

Membership of Linux Australia is free, as in beard! LA makes a tidy profit from LCA and sponsorships.

  • I don’t know anything about LA
  • I don’t see how LA is relevant to me
  • I don’t see LA doing anything

These three are probably the most disturbing. LA must strive to market itself better and to prove its worth in the community. We’ve come a long way, but I do see some areas where we could improve. For instance, I’ve found over the years that many LCA attendees don’t understand the relationship between LA and LCA. LCA is an LA event, and we shouldn’t let anyone forget it. Other areas where we could improve include support for local groups, particularly LUGs. Various projects have been in the works for a while now, but unfortunately we’ve all been constrained by Real Life. We should be better utilising that famous open source scalability to fix these problems.

  • LA is too opaque
  • I’m not good enough to participate

The sentiments above are complete anathema to a working democracy, and they should be dispatched with accordingly. Yes it’s (generally) true that the open source world is a meritocracy, but that should not dissuade any casual person from having their input.

  • I don’t know any of the candidates
  • I don’t have any specific objections or preferences regarding the candidates

The former is a reflection of our diverse and geographically distributed community. The latter might have some crossover with apathy, but generally it’s an expression that none of the candidates are offensive enough to vote against (the blacklist approach to voting) or preferential enough to vote for. Enthusiasms can go both ways — an unpopular group of candidates might be enough to mobilise an increased number of votes against them.

  • I can’t make it to the AGM, and so cannot vote
  • I thought I was already a member after subscribing to the mailing lists
  • I thought I was already a member after registering for linux.conf.au
  • The voting form is difficult to find
  • The voting system is confusing

These come down to the design and communication surrounding our Web properties. We use MemberDB as our online memberships and voting system, and hence there is no need to physically present yourself to vote (do it in your undies for all I care; just make sure the webcam is off). Each mailing list has a Mailman login, the Web site has another, and MemberDB has yet one more. LCA each year tends to have its own software infrastructure entirely. The voting form does indeed require much digging to reach. There’s plenty of scope here for streamlining.

  • I didn’t know the election was on
  • The voting period is too short
  • My registration wasn’t approved (in time)
  • I signed up during the voting period

The points above are mostly to do with process and procedure. Elections need to be publicised better. One person said to me that they were expecting a big ‘VOTE’ button on the front page of linux.org.au, linking directly to the ballot form. Maybe another Council member can correct me on this, but I gather it’s unofficial policy not to accept new memberships during the voting process. Given that MemberDB is designed to approximate the Australian electoral process, this should come as no surprise. However, this is not stated anywhere in public. Also, since new memberships must be manually confirmed (a precaution to stop spam and multiple sign-ups) there will be an appreciable lag in the approvals process. Don’t expect the Council to have any time to accept new sign-ups during or close to LCA.

I am yet to hear the old ‘one vote doesn’t make a difference’ excuse, but just in case, you can read here on why this attitude is not helpful.

I’d be interested to hear if you have any other reasons (and proposed solutions) for not registering with Linux Australia and voting in the elections. I’d recommend that you take part in the discussion on the linux-aus mailing list, otherwise you can post a comment here or contact me directly if you’d prefer some privacy.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, or possess some magic map of where we should be going. I’m just another community member like anyone else, who is interested in seeing us move forwards. Please consider assisting LA to address these problems.

LotD: bluehackers.org

* yes, caps are mandatory

Great start… but the hard work is just beginning

Donna Benjamin rounded a small group of us together to write a letter to Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education. The result was widely syndicated, hopefully building some mindshare in the process. The Education Expo proved to me more than anything else that FOSS is quickly becoming acceptable to the general public — the trick is in how you promote it.

So where to from here? How can we capitalise upon the gains we have made?

Perhaps our greatest single weakness is the perceived lack of professional support. I think OSIA should be doing more to address this (note: I’m not implying that OSIA isn’t taking this seriously). Here’s an e-mail I wrote to the osia-discuss mailing list (which is unfortunately subscriber-only):

The best thing OSIA can do is fight the popular notion that there’s no
professional support available for FOSS. We can beat the TCO and Freedom
drums as hard as we want, but few organisations are willing to entrust their
computing to ‘community’ support.

I managed the Linux Australia stand at the Education Expo a few weeks ago, and
my impression is that FOSS is on the cusp of mainstream acceptance:


Schools are crying out for ways to get better value for their dollar, but they
aren’t going to even think about FOSS if they can’t get professional support.

If I run the stand again next year, I’d like to see some involvement from
OSIA. At the very least, we should have available some leaflets showing that
yes indeed there is quality, paid support for FOSS.

Also note that FOSS isn’t Linux. We got the most interest in the
OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for Windows.

On the community side, we can continue to make FOSS more acceptable to school administrations, bureaucrats and politicians. Here’s my idea:

My suggestion is for us to build a Web site focused on open education in
Australia. We already have the perfect vehicle: http://openeducation.org.au.
However, at present it’s just a messy wiki more suitable for our own
brainstorming than for being a public-facing resource.

The wiki should of course remain, but I propose that we build a proper,
presentable Web site that is directly accessible via the
http://openeducation.org.au address.

Why do this when we already have http://linux.org.au/education? Open Education
is much bigger than Linux, and certainly should not be anchored to it. Here’s
a short list of what it can include:

  • FOSS
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on servers
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on clients/desktops
  • open standards
  • open languages/libraries/APIs
  • free content/culture
  • open learning
  • open curriculum

To be honest, I fear that we might be only hurting ourselves by tying open
education to a completely Free computing environment. That might be a worthy
aim, but few institutions are going to switch over all in one go. By offering
a migration path (or paths), a school can migrate more comfortably at its own
pace. We ought to be providing real choice, not just a binary ‘with us or
with the terrists’.

FOSS (Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Scribus, etc.) can run on operating systems
other than Linux. To use the recent Education Expo as an example, we got a
lot of buy-in through the OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for

Also note how I split Linux clients from servers. Linux’s place in the server
realm is very solid, but convincing an institution to accept a Linux client
solution is tougher. And by ‘client’, I mean either traditional desktops or
thin clients. The latter are often cost-effective and represent a real
strength of Linux, but are often overlooked or even have regulations working
against their adoption. On the server side, we have some great educational
tools such as Moodle and LAMS.

Open standards obviously include things like file formats and protocols, which
will become even more relevant as we see more applications (proprietary or
otherwise) pick up standardised methods of information exchange such as ODF
and PDF. This should also ease the integration of FOSS into pre-existing
environments. It also can include languages and all things related. Why are
schools still teaching Visual Basic when they could be teaching Python?

The final three points all link together. Most notably, they are not dependent
upon technology at all. Your average teacher isn’t a technologist, and
shouldn’t have to be. Knowledge can be shared and organised openly just like
code. Wikipedia has proven that great things can be built if ordinary people
are given easy to use tools.

Where to from this point? I suggest that we work towards getting a CMS running
at openeducation.org.au. We’ll have to agree upon a design and the message
that we want to purvey. Content creation should be separate from technical
ability, so the CMS should be simple enough for anybody to contribute.

Here is some inspiration from the UK:

The UK education sector appears to be much further ahead of us in terms of
embracing openness, and I think we can take some lessons from their efforts.

To clarify one thing in the above, I wrote the text for http://linux.org.au/education, but I never felt comfortable with it being there. So much of open education has nothing to do with Linux and Linux Australia shouldn’t be diverting its focus to dwell on it directly. With a more independent Web presence (in collaboration with Linux Australia), I feel that we can be much more effective.

LotD:   Open sourcing Australia: OpenAustralia.org goes live

Open Source software is the software establishment!

Note: This post is about a news article I was interviewed for. My comments are below.

It can be amusing when news articles or blogs are written about a report/study that has only been released or read in excerpt. Small snippets can be extremely controversial on their own, and are easily taken out of the context of the gestalt article.

Such has been the case with the announcement of the Standish Group’s report, titled ‘Trends in Open Source‘. The report is available in full to Standish subscribers, or for a fee of $US 1,000 per copy. Standish themselves chose to drum-up publicity in a press release two and a half weeks ago:

Open Source software is raising havoc throughout the software market. It is the ultimate in disruptive technology, and while to it is only 6% of estimated trillion dollars IT budgeted annually, it represents a real loss of $60 billion in annual revenues to software companies.

Some commentators pounced on this in defence of FOSS, and in doing so played right into Standish’s hands. A week later, other reports chose to focus on the technical perceptions of FOSS solutions, in particular security. Some of these articles basically said, “we haven’t been able to read the full report, but this is what we’ve been told”.

More informed accounts have hit the virtual presses in recent days, and it’s been revealed that the report is very positive overall with regards to FOSS. When iTnews asked me for comment, I was assured that the report had been thoroughly read. I said a lot of things, but the quotation that made the final cut is the following:

FOSS is inherently compatible with a free market, and hence with business. There is no closed-off ‘command economy’ that is characterised by proprietary software companies. The software and its development are totally open to the world.

Following the interview, I tried to distil some key points about FOSS:

  • The keys are transparency and accountability, as well as freedom over your own information and independence from vendor lock-in.
  • Most FOSS is based on open standards, which means that users/companies are not tying their data/processes to one vendor or piece of software. Some might be wary of FOSS, but I don’t think anyone can argue against the merits of open standards.
  • There is plenty of FOSS that works well on proprietary platforms (like Windows). There is no inherent tie-in with Linux.
  • FOSS has been most successful where it isn’t noticed. This can be in embedded devices, or in popular desktop applications like Firefox and OpenOffice.org.
  • Most people might think of a ‘computer’ as a desktop computer, but most of ICT (and ICT growth) is actually elsewhere (servers, consumer electronics, mobile phones, telecoms, embedded, supercomputers, etc.). Linux and FOSS is far more popular in these fields.
  • Most of the Internet is based on FOSS and open standards built around FOSS. For instance, TCP/IP networking was built for BSD UNIX (which is open source), and the majority of Web servers run the open source Apache web server.

Obviously there are more points than these, but I deliberately kept this as a quick ‘off the top of my head’ exercise as a means of preventing it from growing into an encyclopaedic tome.

LotD: Ubuntu theme for Windows

A Different Kind of Interview

Every now and then I’m invited to provide media commentary on an issue regarding technology, particularly when it is to do with (GNU/)Linux or other free and open source software. On this occasion, the questions took a slightly different turn with the news that well-known Linux developer Hans Reiser had been convicted of murdering his wife.

Hans had gained a reputation for his skill in coding as well as his eccentric personality. His sentence raised concerns for the future of the filesystem which he had created, ReiserFS, which many had come to rely upon for both personal and professional use.

iTnews reached out to me to find out the word on the (open source) street. Here’s a quote:

“When it came out in the early 2000’s, ReiserFS was considered a revelation,” said Sydney Linux Users Group president Sridhar Dhanapalan. “But it was never taken seriously outside of desktop users, and never seen as completely ready for server use.”

“When it came to stability and integrity of the data, you just didn’t want to trust a file system like that in cases of servers.”

What if… Windows went open source?

Sam Varghese over at iTWire asked me a couple of days ago for input on whether FOSS would be affected if the Windows source code was released. I started drafting a response, expecting to be finished quickly, but the ideas just kept flowing. The end result was a touch over a thousand words! I was expecting Sam to maybe quote a token sentence or two in his article. To my surprise, he basically reproduced (with a little paraphrasing) the whole thing! 🙂

The article is here. Skip to page 4 to start reading my contribution.

Here is my complete response to Sam. As you can see, very little was left out of the article.

The impact on FOSS would depend on what circumstances the code was released under. Windows code is already available under Microsoft’s ‘shared source’ programme. In this state, you must sign a restrictive NDA to see the code, and after that your mind is forever tainted with Microsoft’s intellectual property. Write anything even remotely similar to the code you were deigned to see, and you leave yourself open to litigation. In other words, taking part in shared source is a sure-fire way to torpedo your career in software.

Microsoft have for years been experimenting to find a licence that they can convince people is ‘free enough’. Fortunately they haven’t succeeded. The danger if they did would be to shift the balance in the open source world away from free software and towards a model that is more restrictive but still accepted. They have enough code to seriously upset the balance, ignoring for the moment the complexity (which includes also legacy cruft, bloat and so on) and hence difficulty for anyone to actually comprehend the code and participate in development.

Quality (or rather, lack of quality) aside, Microsoft’s code could be useful to see how formats and protocols are implemented. Linus Torvalds once wrote, “A ‘spec’ is close to useless. I have _never_ seen a spec that was both big enough to be useful _and_ accurate. And I have seen _lots_ of total crap work that was based on specs. It’s _the_ single worst way to write software, because it by definition means that the software was written to match theory, not reality.” It’s one thing to have documentation (as the Samba team have recently managed to acquire), but there’s nothing to guarantee that there are no mistakes or deviations (intentional or otherwise) in the actual implementation. The WINE project is a classic example – consigned to faithfully reimplement all of Microsoft’s bugs, even if they run counter to documents you might find on MSDN.

There are many ‘open source’ licences. Too many, in fact. Many of these are incompatible with each other, and a ludicrous volume of them are just MPL with ‘Mozilla’ replaced with $company. What keeps open source strong are the licences that either have clout in their own right or ones which can share code with those licences. The GPL is right at the centre of this, and we should be proud that the core of open source’s superiority is Free Software. Microsoft could try and release code that meets the Free Software Definition but is intentionally incompatible with the GPL, as Sun did with OpenSolaris and CDDL. It still remains to be seen if OpenSolaris is of any success, and I think GPL incompatibility is certainly a factor there (for example, they can’t take drivers from Linux, so its hardware support remains poor). OpenOffice.org, on the other hand, is a prime example of a large proprietary project that has been released under a GPL-compatible licence (LGPL) and has gone on to be successful as a consequence. That success would not have happened if code could not be shared with other FOSS projects, integration could not be made (direct linking, etc.) and mindshare not won (FOSS advocates to write code, report bugs, evangelise, etc.).

The big stinger here is patents. Sun have addressed this in the past with a strong patent covenant, and more recently they’ve been trying to do it properly by for instance relicensing OpenOffice.org as LGPLv3 (hence granting its users the inherent patent protections of that licence). Would a mere ‘Covenant Not to Sue’ suffice for Microsoft? In the case of Microsoft’s recent releases of binary Office formats documentation, their covenant only covers non-commercial derivations. Similarly, their Singularity Research Development Kit was released a few weeks ago under a ‘Non-Commercial Academic Use Only’ licence.

It is be vital that companies have as full rights to use the code as non-commercial groups. Otherwise, the code would be deemed to be non-Free (Free Software doesn’t permit such discrimination). The contributions made by commercial entities into the FOSS realm is immense and cannot be ignored. To deny them access would be a death sentence for your code. Microsoft would be stuck improving it on their own, and in that case what was the point in releasing it in the first place? Don’t malware writers have enough of an advantage?

Don’t trust what a single company says on its own. Novell was for a short while the darling of the FOSS world… then they made a deal with Microsoft. I’m glad that many of us were sceptical of Mono back before the Novell-MS deal, because I’m sure as hell ain’t touching it now. .NET might be an ECMA ‘standard’, but like OOXML it is a ‘standard’ controlled wholly by Microsoft. Will such a standard remain competitive and open? We’ve seen this in other standards debates, a good example being the development of WiFi. Companies jostled to get their own technologies into the official standard. The end result might indeed be open, but if it’s your technology in there you already have the initiative over everyone else. If Windows is accepted as being open source, Microsoft will continue to dominate by virtue of controlling and having unparalleled expertise in the underlying platform.

To raise the most basic (and in this case, flawed) argument, free software is fantastic for all users no matter what. Free (not just ‘open’) Windows means that Free Software has finally achieved global domination – a Free World, if you will. By this argument, we should simply rejoice in our liberation from proprietary software and restrictive formats/protocols.

Of course, I have already demonstrated that this cornucopia likely will not eventuate even if Microsoft released the Windows source code as open source (even GPL). The software on top will remain proprietary (the GPL’s ‘viral’ nature aside). We’ll still have proprietary protocols and formats – and even digital restrictions management (DRM) – at the application level. In the grand scheme of things, the end consequence on FOSS of Windows source code being released might possibly be zilch.

LotD: Happy Pi Day everyone!

Ice Skating & Superman

Whenever most people go ice skating, they usually begin by clinging onto the barrier going around the edge of the rink. I am no exception, but considering that I hadn’t skated in close to ten years, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to skate away from the barrier after only about ten minutes on the edge. I was able to build up some reasonable speed, and I didn’t even fall over once.

Despite the cold, I worked up a sweat, and I must have had a considerable workout since my hamstrings felt tender for the next couple of days.

After that, we went to see Superman Returns. The intro had me wrapped: it was essentially an updated version of the intro in the first movie. Unfortunately, I feel they borrowed too much from the original four films. Unlike Batman Begins (which I loved), Superman Returns, as its name implies, is a continuation and not a reboot. Lex Luthor was darker, but still felt like a bumbling buffoon surrounded by even greater buffoons. He played a minimal role in the film, with a large chunk of time going to Lois Lane. Lois, I feel, was very poorly written for and casted. What happened to the sassy reporter that offset the goody-goody Clark Kent so well? This Lois was like a wet blanket on the whole plot.

Superman himself was pretty darn good. The problem with Superman, though, is that he’s too darn powerful. Lex Luthor is a powerful adversary with his evil genius, but if you want a character to match Superman in raw power you’d have to look towards the likes of Darkseid or Doomsday. For the movie franchise to survive, I think they will have to branch away from Luthor, but hopefully not as badly as was done in Superman III.

‘X-Men 2′, ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and assorted sci-fi

I saw X-Men 2 a few weeks ago. I’ve always been a fan of the comics, so I am rather sensitive to any ‘changes’ that are made just for the movie. However, I do realise that it is near-impossible to squeeze the entire X-Men universe into a 2-hour movie. I must conclude that they did an excellent job here. As in the first movie, the ‘changes’ were done very well.

There were a few little easter eggs hidden in there as well. In the first movie, you get a quick glimpse of Jubilee (the comic book character whom Rogue replaced in the movie), and just like in Spider Man (another fantastic movie) there is a short cameo by Stan Lee (This man is a GOD! If you don’t know who he is, stop reading right now for you have offended me.). In the second movie you hear Jubilee being called by name (by Storm), and on a television set you see a man with the caption "Dr Henry McCoy" beneath his face. The man appears as a normal (non-mutant) human being, but this man later becomes Beast. I think there were a few other easter eggs, but I don’t remember them.

Speaking of The X-Men, I found a great fan-comic, The Uncanny X-Sprites. Quite funny. I also stumbled across Wolverine’s real name. It’s not Logan, it’s James Howlett. It’s all explained in Marvel’s Origin series, which was released last year. There was also a Paradise X series which contradicts some of the fundamental aspects of Origin, but I wouldn’t take it seriously. Both of these (among others) are explained in vivid detail (beautifully illustrated, too!) at the Lost Soul Wolverine site. I spent hours reading all the stuff there; I was so riveted.

Last Sunday I saw The Matrix Reloaded. I am not going to compare it to X-Men 2, but I will say that this is another excellent film. The CGI was amazing. There were a few little flaws, but with all the action going on they were easy to overlook. I love Hong Kong martial arts movies (Jackie Chan and Jet Li are DEITIES!), and this movie satisifed my desire for some well-choreographed fight scenes. On the negative side, there is less continuity between the plot and the fights when compared to the original movie. Also, some parts were slow and unnecessary. I don’t want to see a bunch of Zionists (I assume that’s what the inhabitants of Zion call themselves?) dancing, and I don’t want to see Neo making love to Trinity. There’s enough pr0n on the Internet, thank-you-very-much.

Like the first movie (and the third, which arrives in November), The Matrix Reloaded was mostly filmed in my home town of Sydney. It’s weird to watch scenes from a movie and think, "hey, I was at that place only yesterday!" It also makes me wonder if I really am in the Matrix. Kooky.

The absolute coolest thing, however, was Trinity’s cracking of the electricity grid. She uses Nmap to scan for open ports and finds that port 22 is open. Port 22 is typically used by SSH, and sure enough Trinity uses a known SSH v. 1 exploit to gain access to the server! As her root password, she uses Z1ON1010. Not only does this make her 1337, it is also another easter egg – 1010 is the number 5 in binary (or so I’m told), and if you’ve seen the movie (spoiler alert) you know that Zion in the movie is in its fifth incarnation. More on this at The Register and Slashdot, and there’s a nice screenshot at Insecure.org, the home of Nmap.

Of course, what’s a movie these days without merchandising? Samsung has a ‘limited edition’ version of one of the phones used in the movie. To me it looks like a forgotten prop from Star Trek: The Original Series. It looks hideous, the ergonomics are all wrong, and the screen is too small to do anything useful. That won’t stop Samsung from charging a premium for it, or people from buying it. I feel sorry for those people. They obviously have some sort of psychological problem that has them convinced that they will only have friends if they have the latest mobile telephone. If it’s movie-themed and a ‘limited edition’, even better. They may even purchase a black trenchcoat to go with it. That will alleviate the symptioms of their inferiority complex for a little while, after which they will feel compelled to jump onto the next fad. Over-consumerism should be treated as a mental illness.