Wikipedia on LAN

At a cryptoparty a few months ago I presented an introduction to Tor. During that talk I set the audience a challenge: the next time you go to look up something on Wikipedia I want you to think to yourself, “You know what? It’s nobody’s business what I’m reading. I’m going to use Tor Browser.”

Out of the things you can do with Tor Browser, Wikipedia works better than just about anything else. Its article pages are fairly small so they download quickly despite Tor’s overheads. Wikipedia’s servers are (for now) perfectly happy to serve Tor exit nodes, unlike many sites, particularly those protected by CloudFlare.

Even so it’s a little inconvenient and slow compared with accessing it directly in your normal browser. The same agencies that run Tempora surveillance to track your Wikipedia reading will also treat you with suspicion if you use Tor.

There is of course another way: download all of Wikipedia then read articles offline. That way the authorities who watch all this have no idea which part you’re reading, if any. To make it more useful I’ve set it up as an HTTP server on my LAN. I am connected to other people via neighbourhood WiFi so we can share the same instance using nothing more than regular web browsers. It even works when the Internet’s down.

Using Wikipedia offline is surprisingly easy to do. I’m using the XOWA project. It’s a Java application designed primarily for use with a GUI that operates like a web browser. By passing in some command line parameters it can be launched in a headless “http server” mode:

The http server mode appears to be considered less important than the main interface so there are some small bugs. I reported a problem with search and the developer is kindly considering fixing it soon.

I have downloaded the Wikipedia text files so far and will soon have the images as well. They are about 25 and 80 GB respectively. Sqlite databases ready for use with XOWA can be downloaded from archive.org but it would be kinder to them to find a torrent if it’s feasible.

You just need to extract the 7zip files and make sure all the .xowa files are inside xowa/wiki/en.wikipedia.org/. When XOWA launches it picks them up automatically.

Since I have the text databases only, by default it will download media like pictures on the fly as I request pages. Since I’m interested in maintaining my privacy I have turned on the Disable web access option under Security settings. Changing options currently only works via the GUI, but you can also edit the file xowa/user/anonymous/app/data/cfg/xowa_user_cfg.gfs. Add the following line and restart XOWA:

The only downside that took me by surprise is that XOWA is pretty resource-intensive. I originally hoped to run it on my Raspberry Pi 2 with external hard drive. It worked but it took 4-5 minutes to render a page. I now have it on a HP Microserver N54L (2.2 GHz AMD CPU) and that takes around 3-5 seconds, which is fine.

I’m looking forward to having the images too. It’s just like the good old Encarta days except with more stuff. I haven’t found any trivia maze games yet though.

Posted in digital rights, internet | 1 Comment

The legality of EN15194 Pedelecs in Tasmania

It’s the big question: are 250-watt EN15194-certified electric bikes legal to ride as bicycles in Tasmania? After doing my own research and corresponding with the responsible minister I think the answer is yes. I’m not a lawyer so don’t consider anything on this website to be legal advice. I am, however, now intending to buy one.

Not that anyone would give me a straight bloody answer. So here’s how I got here. You can make up your own mind.

Broadly, the situation is that the federal government recognised the EN15194 standard but it was up to the states to update their laws to allow these electric bikes to be ridden under the same rules as bicycles.

In 2014 the Tasmanian parliament passed the Vehicle and Traffic Amendment (Power-Assisted Pedal Cycles) Bill. In his second reading speech Rene Hidding MP said:

This Government is eager to provide for the safe and legal use of Power Assisted Pedal Cycles on Tasmanian roads. Madam Speaker, this Bill will provide those opportunities in the near future.

However, the existing definition of ‘motor vehicle’ in the Vehicle and Traffic Act prohibits Pedelecs (which meet the new Standard of 250 watts) from being used as bicycles in Tasmania.

This Bill, which passed, forms the first part of the required changes. He continued:

A consequential amendment to the Road Rules recognising EN15194-compliant Power Assisted Pedal Cycles as ‘bicycles’ will form part of the 10th Road Rules Amendment Package put forward by the National Transport Commission. This is expected to occur in August 2014 which will legalise the use of these Power Assisted Pedal Cycles as ‘bicycles’ on Tasmanian Roads.

My problem was that I couldn’t find the amendments to the Road Rules. I assumed they hadn’t happened so I emailed Mr Hidding to find out what went wrong. I hope he won’t mind me reproducing the meat of his letter here as it is a useful description of what happened:

In May 2012, the Commonwealth Government agreed to recognise the United States Economic Commission for Europe’s EN15194 Standard as an equivalent Australian Design Rule for PAPCs [Power Assisted Pedal Cycles].

The new Standard allows a PAPC to have auxiliary power producing a maximum of 250 watts triggered by the cyclist’s pedaling motion. The auxiliary power ceases at a speed of 25 km/h, requiring the rider to continue pedaling to maintain motion.

To enable their use as bicycles on Tasmanian roads, the Government amended the Vehicle and Traffic Act 1999 to exclude EN15194-compliant PAPCs from being classified as a ‘motor vehicle’, which in turn has exempted them from certain matters prescribed by the Vehicle and Traffic (Driver Licensing and Vehicle Registration) Regulations 2010, including the requirement to be registered and for riders to be appropriately licensed, as well as payment of the associated fees.

In addition a consequential amendment to the Road Rules 2009 was made amending the definition of a bicycle to include PAPCs as defined under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989 (Cwlth.).

The amendment to the Road Rules was notified in the Gazette on 10 December 2014.

Apart from being a good history (many thanks to Rene and his staff!) the important thing is that the changes to the Road Rules did happen. They were in fact announced in the 10/12/2014 Gazette. The changes state that a bicycle “includes a power-assisted pedal cycle within the meaning of vehicle standards determined under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989 of the Commonwealth”.

In section 4.2.2 the Australian Design Rule defines:

POWER-ASSISTED PEDAL CYCLE (AB)

A pedal cycle to which is attached one or more auxiliary propulsion motors having a combined maximum power output not exceeding 200 watts; or

A ‘Pedalec’.

If you look up the definition of Pedalec in the same document you find:

PEDALEC – A vehicle meeting European Committee for Standardization EN 15194:2009 or EN 15194:2009+A1:2011 Cycles – Electrically power assisted cycles – EPAC Bicycles.

That’s good enough for me.

Meanwhile the NSW Government has lost its marbles but its public service appears to still be on the ball. They publish an incredibly clear description of the relevant laws online.

Posted in tasmania | Leave a comment

Digging holes

Some months since I talked myself into it I’ve finished digging my garden beds. For my backyard it has been nothing short of a protracted massacre with lumps of life-destroying clay strewn across it. Now I’m done and will soon have around 7m² of possibly fertile ground ready to grow something come spring.

The first bed is a repurposed sandpit. The second is an area of clay and rock randomly selected from the grassy area in my backyard. This combination almost lead to disaster. You see, like all diligent amateur gardeners I’d been reading about soil structure. I knew that sand is coarse, clay is fine, and a lovely loam has a balance of particle sizes. (The word pair “lovely loam” appears a lot, probably for the pleasing alliteration.)

Having applied some logic to the situation I was all prepared to do a switcheroo with some of the sand and the clay. Luckily I decided to double check on Google and learnt that’s how you grow bricks. So that put paid to that plan.

Sandpit Garden BedA couple of years’ neglect allowed the sandpit to naturally form a mulch layer and it was already growing shallow-rooted weeds voraciously. I shifted as much as I could of the pure sand underneath to one side and topped it off with the cheapest potting mix I could find. I’m quite certain this soil was not organically prepared but all going well that’s the treatment it’s going to get from now on. I’ll plant a cover crop over winter, add some fresh compost and with luck it will do something useful.

Backyard Garden BedAh, my nemesis. How hard could it be to dig a hole in the ground? It turns out my rocks and my soil look the same. In many cases I could only classify lumps by picking them up and trying to split them with my hands. This section of soil now has a bunch of cardboard and garden waste about 30cm below the surface. The clay is more or less broken up and as you can see I’ve added a mulch on top. By all accounts this is a better method than sand for improving clay soil.

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How Tasmania doesn’t fit in the Greens’ battery policy

The Greens have just announced a policy of tax rebates for those who are buying solar and battery storage systems. This is mostly an academic exercise when the other parties have minimal interest in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels but I want to comment on how this relates to Tasmania. The full policy is on their website and the main thing that jumps out at me is a figure that’s mentioned just once: their estimated average size of installed battery storage, 10 kWh.

10 kWh of battery storage. What does that actually look like? I happen to have recently purchased some large batteries for my own solar experiments. Here is 2.8 kWh of battery. It’s a gel cell, half a metre long and weighing in at 71 kg. If I look after it well it will last maybe 15 years before it needs to be recycled. I now own two of them.

Haze BatteryQuite obviously putting four of these in your home is a significant investment in materials, effort and money. In case you’re wondering this would cost you about $3,000 before rebates.

There’s going to be an environmental impact too, of course. Mining, manufacturing, delivering and installing hundreds of kilograms of lead or lithium batteries is not trivial. Perhaps it’s worth it if it transitions people to using renewable sources of energy?

So here’s the thing. Tasmania is already powered almost entirely by hydroelectric power and wind. We’ve been in a spot of bother recently but that’s only because one year we decided to export half our energy over Basslink. The infrastructure for providing Tasmanians with renewable energy already exists. From an environmental point of view it would be staggeringly stupid if tens of thousands of Tasmanian households went out and bought piles of solar panels and thousands of tonnes of batteries between them. (Yes I bought some myself and am therefore contributing to the problem.)

We are in a very special position indeed. In Tasmania we can support energy-rich lifestyles, using our radiant heaters and ovens and long hot showers, courtesy of infrastructure that we already have. As fossil fuels deplete, prices will inevitably rise and the cost of electricity will rise with it. Those poor souls on the mainland will experience declining quality of life as they are forced to reduce their energy consumption while we Tasmanians carry on as before.

At least, we will provided it keeps raining. We’ve seen what happens when we run out of water in our dams—the government installs huge quantities of diesel generation. With atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide increasing more than ever, climate change has plenty of opportunity to mess up our rainfall in the coming decades. The environmental impact of those batteries won’t look so bad compared with years of ad-hoc fossil fuel measures designed by the state government to keep the lights on.

So on the whole I think Tasmanians getting some self-generated renewable power is a good idea. Not because it will move us into a green utopia—unless technology improves dramatically we won’t be able to retain our existing energy lifestyles relying only on home generation—but because having that distributed generation on hand will make things less awful when sea levels rise and everything goes to shit.

To expand on that point about technology, I am a single person household who doesn’t use much heating or cooling. After inverter losses 10 kWh of storage would run my house for about 24 hours. If you have more people or if you love your heat pump you’re going to fare much worse. Throw in a few rainy days when your batteries don’t get to charge and it works out that you need one heck of a lot of batteries to maintain a modern energy lifestyle. Meanwhile solar panels have an efficiency of around 15% out of a theoretical limit of 33% in their current form. In other words, home-grown renewable energy may enable you to maintain your energy consumption into the future but it will probably only help you if you’re rich.

The Greens’ policy is great for the mainland where they’re burning lots of coal and they have lots of sunlight hours to catch with their solar panels. In Tasmania we should focus our efforts on looking after our Hydro system until climate change starts to bite, and only then start incentivising widespread battery purchases.

Posted in energy | 2 Comments