Monday, 25 July 2016

Stairway to Heaven

There is no easy way of saying it: the father of one of my best friends, my oldest friend, died the other week.
I cannot claim to have had much interaction with the deceased in recent years. But as childhood memories go, the parents of friends tend to be regarded as rather intimidating figures; they were big, for a start. Not this father; he was always welcoming, witty and entertaining. I'm sure he means the world to my friend, but even for me his departure meant this world is that much sadder.
Perhaps even sadder are the circumstances in which his departure took place. I will put it this way: as has been the case with my father this is yet another exhibit in that list of people that should have lived longer and better if the system that was to look after them in Israel did its job well. Yet again it seems clear that us, society, treats people as "out of sight, out of mind" once they are no longer contributing members to our consumerists' society.
Another point to make one sadder is the age factor. Between my friend's father, my own father, and other fellow fathers to pass away in recent years, there is a trend. Or rather, there is a very solid average life expectancy figure with very little standard deviation to put. Or, to state it another way, if I am not to be hit buy a truck, stricken by a stroke, or blessed with cancer, I can now tell with a fair degree of confidence the age by which I will hopelessly wither and the time when I will die.
On one hand, I'm always in for more knowledge; it's good to know when things like dying are expected if I am to make the most of the time I have to live in. On the other hand, that small standard deviation renders the verdict an almost fatalistic nature; it feels like no matter what I will do, my personal date is signed and sealed.
But I know better. Date or no date, you still won't catch me smoking.


A rather interesting thought hit me at the funeral.
The deceased died after a severe case of deteriorating dementia. Near the time of his death he was nowhere near the sharp, smart and witty person he once was.
Which made me wonder: which version of the deceased will get to go to heaven?
If you answer with "the guy at his prime" then I will challenge you with defining what "prime" means. Look at me, if you will: Sure, I had a better body in my twenties than I do now, but I also lacked much (if not most) of the wisdom I now have. And if you were to tell me that my heavenly version will have both the body and the wisdom then I will further challenge you with the obvious insight that a person with both the optimal body and optimal wisdom never existed; such an entity might be theoretically possible, but poor old I was never that person.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that heaven is clearly a demented idea.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Unknown Unknows

I am no big fan of Donald "let's invade Iraq for breakfast because I'm a white alpha male" Rumsfeld, but I do appreciate the wisdom of his Unknown Unknowns speech.
There are many things I'm scared of and numerous things I regret, but if we narrow these to that last of all deliberations - the things I'm going to be pissed off with at my death bed, assuming I have the time and capacity to do so - I am voting for these Unknown Unknowns taking centre stage.

I know it is certain there are tons of movies out there I would like - a lot - but will never get to watch because I am unaware of their existence. It is a statistical certainty that the book that would earn my vote for "best written words ever" is a book I am completely unfamiliar with. And I know for sure there are things I would love to know about this world but will never learn due to the fact they will be discovered after I'm already gone - stuff like how consciousness works, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and much much more. FTL, perhaps?
Over long periods of time, science and human progress in general should have little boundaries; yet I will only catch a small glimpse of those.
I can try and comfort myself by telling me I'm trying, doing my best, to find that best book, to watch that great film, and to learn more about this interesting universe that we live in. But I know all too well that, at the end, I will look back at myself and conclude I just didn't try hard enough.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The War Machine

A coffee induced discussion on tabletop gaming brought to my attention this miniatures game I've never heard of before, called Warmachine. Which is interesting, because I called my high school project The War Machine. It earnt me a perfect grade at the time; I still take pride in that project of mine.
Written in Pascal, The War Machine (MY War Machine) was a computer turn based strategy game. Its first [independent] module was a map designer: users were able to design a rectangular map of any sensible size they can think of and populate it with different types of terrain. They were then able to place army units from two sides on that map.
The second module was the game itself: the single player picked a previously created map, chose a side, and then started issuing commands to their army unit (like move, attack, retreat or deploy). There was some complexity included into the engine, such as managing supplies and logistics. The main event, however, was the artificial intelligence that allowed the computer to assume the opponent's side and fight the player. Pretty effectively so, if I might add.

Looking back at The War Machine, I find it amazing how little research I had done for the project. Not for lack of trying; it's just that it was very hard to acquire information during those pre-internet times. Things we take for granted nowadays, like online searches or Wikipedia researches, simply weren't there. I can see the differences these make with my pre-teen son's school projects. Seriously, I do more research in order to decide what to have for dinner than I did for that school project of mine!
That research relied pretty much on three sources. The first was Dungeons & Dragons rules for determining the results of army to army fights. You may recall D&D is a game focusing on individual characters; those rules I'm referring to were there to answer the need for determining what would happen if armies collided during those individual characters' campaigns.
That D&D set of rules was called The War Machine. I politely borrowed the name for my project. It was those rules that pretty much governed the AI (Artificial Intelligence) of the computer side.
That AI was built around ideas borrowed from another book I purchased years earlier, called Artificial Intelligence and the Dragon Computer. [For those of you who don't know, probably most of you, the Dragon was a personal computer from that very first round of personal computers for the home.] Essentially, the computer player calculated The War Machine rules' scores of each option available to its army units and went with the choices that got it the maximum score (read: effectiveness).
My third source of inspiration was a strategy board game called Ogre that my uncle bought me* a few years earlier. It was a two player turn based game where one player controlled a single very powerful but slow tank, the Ogre, as it fought to cross the battlefield. Opposing that powerful Ogre was the second player, armed with numerous faster but not as capable army units. At the time, Ogre was analysed to the death in various forums; books were written about it, and I read some of those. Essentially, the experts concluded that the Ogre should almost always win (barring severe lack of luck with the dice) with one single exception: if the opponent deployed only hovercraft a to fight the Ogre and used them in a way that saw them attacking and then retreating away each round (so as to avoid the counterattack).
Ogre acted as a test case for my game. I designed a map that was, essentially, a copy of that board game's map, and deployed units across it as per the original game. I then played it out against the computer and exchanged roles between Ogre and opponent. Lo and behold, my simulation behaved exactly as that Ogre published analysis said it would!
I was a proud boy.

Image copyright © 1984 Keith and Steven Brain, used under the assumption of fair use

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Mind the Gap

One of the features of having a regular coffee joint to hang out at is that one develops some sort of a relationship with the crew hosting us there. There are the owners, but they are outnumbered by the younger folk that actually does the bulk of the work. And these, as coffee shops go, are very young people.
Through chatting we discovered (and cringed) at one being 25 years old and another 20. And last week, while discussing sports injuries (from which I'm immune) we discovered another one is 19 years old. 19! They even made a song about her back in the eighties.
This discovery brought the cringe factor to new peaks. I mean, what do these people think about me? It is the first time I hold an adult to adult conversation with a person who has a generational advantage on me; I'm used to it going the other way, but now I am The Old Guy.

Perhaps the best place to start is me looking at the way I used to regard older generations back when I was a child [I wanted to use the term bar*ly le*al, but that would attract the wrong audience to this post].
Well, I grew up in an environment filled with people who lived through World War 2, Holocaust survivors, and people who fought Israel's various existential wars - from its war to achieve independence (1947-1948) through the Six Day War (1967) and Yom Kippur / October War (1973). As one can imagine, each of those was a big deal, certainly bigger than anything I had experienced. Yes, even bigger than September 11. You can see what September 11 did to our world; imagine what those events did to their world and the impression it left on them. So yeah, it would be damn hard for me to relate to them and for them to relate to me.
And now I stand sipping coffee with people too young to have proper recollections of even September 11. Where does that leave us? Can a bridge be found that would allow us to connect?
I would argue that, while we can chat and all, we would never be able to relate to one another the way each of us can relate to people of their generation, growing up in the same culture, listening to the same music, et al. We have just been wired too differently.
One can see this on a regular basis. Take, on one hand, the grandparent that doesn't know a thing about technology, or the kid that complains they're bored the second their iPad battery dies on the other hand. Or note how racism is not even considered a thing to be ashamed of with the older generations.
One cannot escape the conclusion our world is changing too quickly for us to catch up. One day that currently 19 year old waitress will face a much younger adult who won't dig her, either.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Love Over Gold

To state the obvious, I am the person who I am today as a direct result of experiences I had during younger years. The less obvious insight is that I should be thankful for the circumstances I grew up in, as they obviously favoured me; I do wonder how many people receive as many opportunities as I have had.
Since I posted a lot recently on the way music had touched me, I will demonstrate the point through music yet again.

I clearly remember the way Love Over Gold, Dire Straits' fourth album (the one playing as I'm typing) entered my life.
My siblings were arguing who would be the one that buys the new album when it comes out. At stake was the question of in whose room will the album get stored when not in use. My sister won, by default, on account of my brother being away the day the album came out. I still remember that evening, when she arrived at my uncle's house (I was already there) carrying the new treasure and asked, ever so politely, if she could put it on.
We were all mesmerised by Telegraph Road. It is clearly a case of "they don't do them like that anymore", a mainstream song that's almost 15 minutes long, but there you go.
And it's not like the next track, Private Investigations, was a slouch either.

Going back to the subject of childhood benefits, I would like to discuss Industrial Disease (side B's first track, given those were the prime days of vinyl).
I actually heard the song a while before it was released on the album. Voice of Peace, the visionary pirate radio station playing off the shores of Tel Aviv, played it one evening when I was recording them on a cassette. In those days of contents deprivation (a stark contrast to today's contents saturation), that meant I had a treasure on my hands - a new Dire Straits song I could listen to again and again!
Nowadays we have fewer incentives to listen to one song repeatedly, given the ease with which we can always get the even newer song. There is, however, a positive to listening to a song again and again: for this native Hebrew speaker, the sophisticated language of Industrial Disease provided me with one of my best ever English lessons. Not to mention a very large window into the so very foreign British culture.
My point is simple. Through repeated listening to my favourite music, and later repeated viewings of my favourite films on VHS and later Laserdisc, my English skills have established a better foundation than school lessons could ever provide. Later on, these skills had me cruising through the English side of my university studies (I can't say I cruised through most of the other sides). Of course, nowadays I live in an English speaking country, reading and writing in English by default.
I think Love Over Gold sums this aspect of my life quite neatly.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Art of Noise

In my last post to deal with the gravely important subject of headphones, I argued that despite all their shortcomings Bluetooth headphones are the way to go. All their issues fade in comparison to the comfort and ease of use. Now I will, yet again, change my mind.
I gave Bluetooth headphones a fair go over numerous months, but as nice as they are they do have their own issues. First, there is that matter of poor sound quality. Then there is the cost: if you want better quality (but still not hi-fi quality), you will need to open your wallet wide to the tune of $500 or even more for the latest Parrot 3 or Sennheiser Momentum Series 2. That's very poor return on investment given they will be eclipsed in less than a year. And third, Bluetooth has its own issues, notably interferences often meaning it is not just a matter of switching them on and pressing play on the phone but rather, and all too often, having to go through a bit of a debugging ritual.
So for now, and at least until the iPhone deprives us of a headphone jack, I'm back with wired headphones. But not just any wired headphones.

Noise cancelling UI #parrot #zik2.0

My experiments with noise cancelling headphones have been quite revealing, to the point of revolutionising my perceptions on all headphone matters.
To sum it up in a nutshell, noise cancelling is an incredibly effective technology, at least by the standards applying to the Sony cans I am using. If you can afford the far more expensive Bose Quietcomfort 25s then you're in for an even better treat. [I verified that last point with an extensive A-B-A-B-A-B testing session, courtesy of Costco.]
I now see myself in need of two sets of headphones to satisfy two significantly different use cases.
The first set is a hi-fi grade one for use at home, in that controlled and quiet environment where bulk, usability and weight are not an issue. This is where I seek the ultimate headphone experience, and when done right it is a very rewarding experience.
However, it is the second use case that is far more important and where the bulk of my headphone music action lies. This is all to do with listening to music outside my home, through my phone (and definitely not through any sophisticated amps and DACs), in uncontrolled environments that are guaranteed to have background noise, often a lot of it: the train, the street and the office.
I can argue about the merits of hi-fi headphone listening as much as I'd like, and I do like to philosophise on such matters, but the reality is that at those environments there CANNOT be a hi-fi experience. It is physically impossible, period.
Which is where noise cancelling steps in. Sure, my noise cancelling headphones are a far cry from hi-fi standards, and at home when pitted against the hi-fi they feel like a badly tuned violin. But, and that is a very important but, on the street or on the train they allow me to completely switch off from the environment I'm in and focus on the music. They allow me to enjoy the music to unprecedented levels, and in the end that is all that matters. And they do so without making my ears bleed and even over extended sessions.
So yeah, one does need to be careful and switch off noise cancelling when crossing a road and such. But at the office they allow me to disconnect myself from the eternally ongoing chitchat that comes with an open office setting (and enable me to focus on work instead). And on the street they allow me to take part in the debate that podcast I'm listening to is offering or get to truly feel for the character in this audiobook I'm listening to.

It is a truly wonderful experience to be able to enjoy sound regardless of the environment one is at. I give noise cancelling technology full credit there.

Image by Lunasea., Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Sunday, 22 May 2016

We don't need no [private] education

We already know a lot about Australian private schools. For example, we know they often get more tax payer money funding for each of their students than state schools in the same area do (and that's aside of the money parents pay out of pocket). It's getting to the point one can argue one is saving tax payer money by sending their kids to private schools.
The number one question with regards to private schools remains the same, though: is it worth it? Can this huge parental investment of around $20K out of pocket per student per year (Catholic schools cost less) show a decent return on investment? After all, there is a whole galaxy of private tutoring one could purchase with that same amount of money.

We recently got some sort of an answer from Brighton Grammar, a prestigious private school in the Melbourne area. It published a guide on bullying which claimed, among others, that kids who get bullied have themselves to blame. I don't think there is a need for me to go on and explain just how bad a claim this is; suffice to say it reeks of the same victim blaming we tend to hear with rape cases, stuff along the lines of "she brought it on herself by wearing a short skirt".
The school itself, a boys only affair, only provided a half hearted non-apology following all the protests.
If Brighton Grammar hadn't already demonstrated where it is standing by virtue of it being a boys only school, this latest educational message clarifies affairs firmly: it is stuck some hundred years or so ago, providing an education system not unlike that depicted in Pink Floyd's The Wall. It does so in a very flashy manner, offering Olympic swimming pools and precision cut grass on the oval (it is truth universally acknowledged that the standard deviation of the grass' length requires NASA grade laser tools to measure). But it is still archaic.
This is what parents, as well as tax payers, are getting for their money. A status symbol that has little to do with 21st century education.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Fools on the Hill

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
-An ancient Chinese proverb that's probably not Abraham Lincoln's

Less than three years ago, the Australian people have voted for the Liberal & National coalition to build a government headed by Tony Abbott with which to run Australia. It took less than a year for disenchantment with that government to take over, as indicated by the overthrowing of single term Liberal state governments in Queensland a and Victoria. It took a year longer for the Liberals themselves to get the point and demote Abbott.
If we examine the state of mind that had Aussies choose this failure in the first place, we can find its roots in what turned out to be false claims regarding the state of the Australian economy. Essentially, the Liberals claimed the then minority Labor government is stagnating affairs and that they'd do things so much better that everyone would be better off. It was the definition of a negative campaign, with its Juliar slogan and everything that went with it.
Fast forward a year, and all the Liberals had achieved in their term of governing was the cancellation of Labor's Carbon Tax. An amazing achievement for a country that deems itself an advanced 21st century society, I am sure you'd [dis]agree. That, plus a budget that declared an emergency (two years later we are still searching for that emergency) and tried to kidnap our Medicare and plenty of other things that do make Australia an advanced 21st century society.

Another way of telling this story is to say that the Liberals fooled most of the people some of the time before the previous elections. Alas, I cannot avoid drawing a far more damning conclusion.
With polls suggesting this year's elections has the two sides tied at 50%-50%, I do wonder what this is implying with regards to the Australian people's ability to learn from the past. Perhaps it is not the case at all that the Liberals fooled people; maybe, instead, it is us Australians that are simply foolish.