Friday, 31 January 2014

open source alternatives

I thought I would write a quick list of my favourite open source alternatives to software and websites people use on an everyday basis.

Libre Office (word processing)

Libre Office is the successor to Open Office, and it's really starting to get good. It's a solid productivity package, and they've just released a new version which increased interoperability with Word (although I don't think it's ever going to be 100%).

Clementine (music)

Clementine is the only good open source music program I've seen. It has the ability to fetch album artwork from the web, to display song lyrics, and do everything else you would expect in a normal desktop player.

Firefox (web browser)

A lot of people I know have shifted from Firefox to Google Chrome, but I'm still a supporter of Firefox. While it may be slightly slower, it's made by a non-profit foundation which works towards creating an open, people-centered web rather than being motivated by commercial interests.

VLC media player (video player)

VLC just works – it plays pretty much anything without having to download anything extra.

Duck Duck Go (search engine)

Duck Duck Go is a privacy-centric search engine. I've been using it for the last little while and I've yet to be be frustrated by the results. Similarly to Google search, it provides useful information at the top of the results with links to wikipedia information etc.

It doesn't track users of its search engine, displays open source results where possible, and doesn't provide personalised results so helps to avoid the so-called "filter bubble". Here's how wikipedia defines a filter bubble:
A filter bubble is a result state in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behaviour and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles. Prime examples are Google's personalised search results and Facebook's personalised news stream.
I think it's easy to see how it might be desirable to avoid such a bubble! (Explore blog on tumblr also has a good post about how websites like Facebook are keeping things from you.)

The website has been growing in fits and starts, but interestingly it's growth has hugely benefited from the recent surveillance revelations and an increased awareness of privacy.

Open Street Map (online maps)

Open Street Map (OSM) is like the Wikipedia of maps. Anyone can edit the maps and add or correct information about things in their neighbourhood or city. The mapping data is free for anyone to use, so anyone can build apps or websites using the information. The main website ( is only the tip of the iceberg.

Everyone in New Zealand seems to use Google Maps for pretty much everything, but there are some pretty compelling reasons why we shouldn't rely on Google's proprietary maps. Simply put, it's dodgy relying on a company to decide what's worth seeing on a map – do we really want those with the deepest pockets being able to pop up, while others are resigned to obscurity?

Updated 6 February

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

low turnout

There's been heaps of discussion recently about the low voter turnout at the recent local government elections, and the reasons behind the inevitable trend downwards. (Except, it seems, in Wellington and a couple of other places where turn out has increased somewhat!)

Why is voting so low, and what can we do about it?

Monday, 7 October 2013

recurrent bubbles

“…once a crisis is under way, even drastic cutting of central bank interest rates and massive injection of liquidity may have limited effects in stimulating credit markets and investment. The main effect may turn out to be the mother of all bubbles in the next several years, ending in a bigger crash. This underlines the importance of not letting bubbles develop in the first place. …the crisis shows the hazards of an economic growth model based on the growth of finance and housing, and on the international system’s tolerance of large external deficits.” 
— Robert Wade writing on the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. 

Reading this passage got me thinking about whether we have fully thought through the consequences of our responses to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It is argued by some that the GFC itself was partly caused by very low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve in the wake of the dot com bubble (among other things). Inflation was low, so Alan Greenspan kept interest rates low throughout the early- and mid-2000s. These low interest rates contributed significantly to the consumer debt and housing bubbles underlying the GFC. 

How are we to know we aren’t going down this road again? Looking ahead, what are the consequences of an expansionary monetary policy for the future? How are we to know that through quantitative easing we aren’t creating yet another asset bubble, that might contribute to another financial crisis some time in the future?

Saturday, 5 October 2013

why we should be worried

"People misunderstand what a police state is. It isn't a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it's a country where the police can do anything they like. Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes. We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don't, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee."
Journalist and novelist John Lanchester has written a great long-form piece in the Guardian about mass surveillance and privacy in the UK. It's interesting to see a view of the secret Snowden documents from a sort of layman's perspective, and I particularly like his idea of a digital bill of rights.