Thursday, 1 October 2015

Coffee in a Land Far, Far Away

Hope had me sampling all the coffees I could spot. Maybe, just maybe, the next one I’ll be trying would actually be worthy of its title, rather than yet another cup of dirty [soy] milk?
I was away from home. I was desperate. Desperate for a decent cuppa, like the ones you can get at every street corner of Melbourne (not to mention the really good ones that are there for the picking, too).
Looking around me, I noticed I was the only grumpy faced person around. Everybody else was loving their coffee, admiring it, a facsimile copy of my face upon consumption of the real thing from Melbourne.
It was then that it occurred to me: these people are at risk of living out their entire lives without ever knowing what a proper cup of coffee tastes like. Through the relative obscurity of good coffee, they will suffer for their ignorance, missing out on one of life’s biggest joys while wasting their lives in mediocrity.
What a shame.

As inconceivable as it may sound, coffee isn’t everything. There are more important things in life. Even I will concede that. Thus the question I found myself asking, as I was watching these miserable people sipping their dirty milk and waste their lives in their blissful ignorance, was this: what other things are we missing out on through our ignorance? What things are there, ripe for the picking, but are left on their low hanging branches because we’re simply not looking the right way?
Take the average Sydneysider or Melbournian who never had the opportunity to get away much from Australia. They could lead their entire lives completely unaware of what a properly functioning public transport system feels like. That could lead to them appointing captains like Tony Abbott (good riddance!) to lead them, a guy that will fight against public transport with the full might of his religious fervour while seeking to invest billions after useless billions on jammed up roads.
If we cast our eyes State side for a minute, we can state the obvious and note just how dumb American public discourse sounds like to everyone else (i.e., the rest of the world). Democrats tear the Republican guts and vice versa, but both stand out like total morons on matters such as health care. Probably one of the most beneficial experiences for your average American would be to have themselves a medical emergency when visiting the UK, just so they could experience the wonders that the absolutely free NHS health system has to offer.
How can such horrors of ignorance take place?
Well, it’s not too hard to see that we all grow up accepting that what we see in our immediate surroundings is the universal truth. To an Australian, public transport is a worthless endeavour; to an American, free public health is synonymous with murder. When public discourse is controlled by self interest, and let’s face it – the level of political discourse in Australia is lower than kinder, with the two major parties ecstatically happy to keep it right there – there is not much hope for the general public. When the media is, in effect, a monopoly held by one guy whose name starts with Murdoch, the process of critically reviewing that public discourse is aborted prior to birth. And when the Internet, once deemed the secret weapon of democracy, is ruled by a few greedy giant conglomerates through which we consume the wealth of our information about the world – your Facebooks, Googles and Twitters – the hope of us individually crossing the divide to open our eyes to the world plummets to previously unexplored depths.
The only tool available for us to gain our freedom of mind with is travel. We might experience plenty of disappointments as we go about – the poor coffee that lies in the realms beyond Melbourne, the medical emergency awaiting us at the UK – but with it comes a new way of seeing the world around. Travel is the most effective removalist of ignorance.

All of which leaves me asking a personal question: what experiences am I missing out on? What is that excellent cup of coffee that is not at the end of the rainbow, but right around the corner, waiting for me to try and marvel?

I do not know the answer to that frustrating question. What is clear to me, though, is that I am almost certainly doomed to never read the book I would find the best ever. But I can try; I can explore books in order to climb up the tree of that crusade for the holy grail. At the end of it all, it is that exploration that counts and it is all that really matters.

Saturday, 12 September 2015


Memories of my father keep floating about.
At a school concert I could see my son, on stage, scanning for us parents. I recall how, under similar circumstances, I would never have this problem; my father’s deaf defying whistling capabilities made sure of that.
While being sick, I noted my son’s repulsive stares at me and the state I was in. He did not want to be there and see me like that. I recall how, witnessing my own father at a similar condition, I could not fathom how this giant of a man could ever be brought down by anything.

There is an overarching theme to these comparisons between my son, myself and my father. It’s a cyclical affair: the death of my father hurts more because I am able to see him in me today, in the way I relate to my son. I am also able to see me in my son, in the way he relates to me.
And since it feels like it was only yesterday that I was a little boy and my father was a towering giant capable of anything, and only yesterday that I saw my father shrinking until eventually dying, life has been put under a brand new perspective. For the first time ever, I can see the end of the tunnel; for the first time ever, life feels agonisingly short.
Yet there is so much I still want to do and achieve.

This realisation, the acknowledgement of the fact I will not be able to achieve everything I want to achieve, I will not be able to read all the books I want to read or travel to all the places I want to travel to, has been served to me in person through the death of my father.
I can see where he was when he was at a similar stage to where I am with my son today. And I can see that it’s all downhill from here. The best achievements of my life are now behind me; the best physique I ever had is now long gone, the best intellectual capabilities I ever had have faded away.
I am a mortal.

Copyrights for the image of Mortality, the book by Christopher Hitchens, are with the author. I highly recommend the book, having awarded it the best book of the year.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Sugar Rush

Sugar Loops

Last week a Chinese work colleague ran up to me as we were both approaching our office building in the morning.
“Moshe”, he said, “I noticed you lost weight. Do you have any advice for me? I want to do that, too.”
I was taken by surprise with this direct approach, but I do commend it. This Australian way of going around the bush instead of talking directly to the point has been known to drive me crazy on a daily basis. Which is exactly the reason I pointed out the Chinese factor; the only other person to ask me about my weight loss at work was an Indian. Do accuse me of stereotyping and extrapolating too much out of too little, but I think there is clearly a point here for “pure” Aussies to take note of. And the point is, you don’t learn by going around the bush and avoiding what’s staring you in the face.

Cultural insight aside, here is what I told my colleague (a very nice and wise guy, if I might add):
  • If you want to reduce weight, avoid consuming stuff with added sugar.
  • If you want to put on weight, eat sugary stuff.
I was not joking; my personal experience really comes down to that.
I know I have focused on calorie counting before. I know most people put a lot of emphasis on exercise. But experiments I have conducted on myself lately seem to prove the point that, as long as one handles oneself reasonably, little else matters in the matter of weight management other than the small matter of added sugar consumption.

Image by Vox Efx, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Monday, 31 August 2015

Papers, Please

On Friday morning my Twitter feed burst into a life of its own. Australia’s Border Force, whatever that is, has announced it will be joining hands with Victoria Police and public transport authorities in Melbourne in order to conduct Operation Fortitude. "Anyone crossing paths" with the Border Force, the press release said, will be asked to demonstrate their visa status.

Several observations came quickly to mind:
  • What happened to due process, as in the assumption of innocence?
  • How is this farce going to be implemented without it turning into a clear case of racial profiling?
  • Where is the common sense in stopping so many people for the sake of catching the infinitesimal percentage of visa violators lurking in the thick of the Melbourne CBD?
As the CEO of the Always Picked at the Airport’s So Called Random Security Checkups Club, this truly pissed me off. I can live with the farce theatrics at the airport because, hey, I hardly fly; but what does this new initiative mean for my daily life? Is each train ride going to be like that airport nightmare?
One can also clearly see where things have to go from here: in the name of efficiency, we will shortly be wearing our IDs on us. It won’t be long till I have a Star of David on my forearm as I am relegated to the carriages normally reserved for cattle.

I wasn’t the only one worried about this initiative. The Friday lunch room at work was shared between a Russian, a Chinese and I (all perfectly legal Australians) when the TV broke the Fortitude news. The Russian noted how even in the lesser parts of Russia he never encountered such attitudes, and commented that when asked for his visa he will ask if MasterCard is accepted, too. The Chinese guy was clearly worried, noting his paperwork is safely at home and wondering what he would have to do when stopped.
You know what this whole thing felt like, for me? It felt like being back in Israel. A country where you have to present yourself at the entrance of each shop. Where not carrying the right paperwork could land you in big trouble (the fact this is almost exclusively implemented against Arabs does not matter in the least).
Me, I agreed with myself on an approach of peaceful protest. I know my rights; officers can stop me if they have reason to believe I have done something wrong or if I am on public transport. Border Force people can ask for my papers if they have reason to believe there is something wrong. Given there is nothing wrong, I made sure my phone is set to take videos with minimum clicks and my Periscope app is up and running. Any delegate of the authorities that stops me will get the Internets to watch them live in the act of unreasonable behaviour.
Oh, and I have my favourite lawyer on my iPhone's Signal app.

But then came Melbourne’s hour of glory.
By 14:00, several hundred protestors surrounded the Flinders Street train station and prevented the Border Force from executing their plans. The latter had to be evacuated after changing to civilian clothing. It was all very Melbourne like: if you look at the photos you will see many if not most of the protestors were holding cups of takeaway coffee. These are my people that fought for me! (While, I should add,  I was away working.)
The whole operation got untangled, then cancelled, very quickly. Soon we heard hiccups from upstairs denying the operation was ever planned (jokers, the lot) but failing to explain the ministerial approvals it had received.
In my opinion, Australia got lucky: the Liberal dummies in charge chose to open their scare campaign at the capital of Australia’s multiculturalism, a Greens seat. Had the Dutton & Abbott comedians initiated their scare campaign at a less tolerant spot – pretty much anywhere else in Australia – chances are I would have ended up wearing my Star of David in a month or two.

I am sure the war is far from over. The Liberals are clearly on a war mongering scare campaign to rescue their ailing polls with. However, what was also demonstrated through this Melbourne Spring demonstration is the power of ordinary people to organise themselves and fight back. Which explains exactly why our government is hot in its pursuit of the implementation of data retention measures with which it can control and oversee our use of the Internet.

Papers Please image copyrights belong to 3909 LLC. I highly recommend this game (I play the iPad version).

1/9/2015 update: Author Richard Flanagan, whose book The Narrow Road to the Deep North I had recently discussed, has some very wise words to pour over this Border Farce.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Musical Interlude

Here's proof having some Mass Effect weapons at hand can always be of some use:

To which I will add that whoever manages Lana Del Rey's musical career and product branding, they are doing an excellent job.

I will leave you, however, with the song I've been playing the most these past two challenging weeks. A song that makes people note just how good this band called R.E.M. is/was:

I will finish off by noting that one John Paul Jones did the classical arrangements for the song. You might remember him from a little known band called Led Zeppelin.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Deforestation of the Amazon

I assume that by now you've heard of and probably read the New York Times article discussing the working culture at Amazon. Assuming that article is correct with its facts, then here is the worst example known to humanity on how the human spirit could be torn apart in the name of efficiency and productivity. And I do tend to suspect those facts are correct, given Amazon's record and given Jeff Bezos being the libertarian that he is (note the difference between that and civil libertarians).

Books from amazon

It did make me think, this article.
When they told us how smartphones are made by slave labour and reported the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones tend to get assembled, I dismissed it. It's not like I had a choice: pretty much all gadgets nowadays are made of blood. You can have your moral ground, but you'd be stuck at a prehistoric era.
Then when they told us of the harsh conditions at Amazon's warehouses, where workers' movements and packing throughput are measured while temperatures are rising, I managed to convince myself to dismiss it because all jobs at these levels tend to suck in one way or another.
Now, however, I hear that Amazon is having a go at white collar workers. Now is when I cannot dismiss it anymore, because now they're after me.
So yeah, I'm two faced. But at least I recognise the fact.

I do not doubt for a second that my record as an Amazon consumer is yet to be concluded. I do, however, plan on reducing my Amazon intake as much as I consider reasonably possible, and that includes purchases from Amazon subsidiaries such as Book Depository or Woot.
The more important fact to recognise is that Amazon is not alone in this game. None of these companies that try and portray themselves like they were your best friend really is. Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, they're all the same shit - they're all there to make money, and they will probably even argue that they are legally bound to cross the threshold of what a reasonable person would consider ethical.
Any significant improvement in the way things are has to happen at the political level. With the USA being as capitalist minded as it is, and with the USA in control of the world and its culture, I cannot see that happening any time soon. Indeed, I see the opposite taking place right in front of our eyes in the shape of the TPP agreement.

Image by Aurelijus ValeiĊĦa, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Monday, 17 August 2015

Aussie Standards

One of the reasons I wouldn't want to live in the UK is the houses. I don't know if you managed to survey many of those yourselves, but I will give you the gist of it: the vast majority of UK houses follow the exact same design. A design loyal to the technology and economic state of affairs the way they used to be about a hundred years ago.
No wonder these people are stuck in love with their archaic monarchy.

Question is, are we any better?
I will argue that the way we build our houses tells us a lot about who we are. What our values and aspirations are. We've covered the UK; now let us have a look at Australia and Melbourne in particular.

Timber Floors and New Krslovic Homes

The first thing you would notice when you step into a Melbourne home during winter is that it's cold. Not as cold as the outside, but compared to what most people consider normal indoor temperature - even during winter - your Melbourne residence would feel quite cold.
There are multiple reasons for this cold. Melbourne goes through extreme temperature variance between seasons and sometimes between the hours of the day; the same house has to deal with both wintery temperatures less than ten degrees as well as summer temperatures above forty. Melbourne houses tend to also be fairly big, which implies heating them up is no simple affair.
Most of all, things come down to Melbourne homes being built to lower standards than their international cold climate colleagues do. Whereas the average UK home is built of double bricks, the average Melbourne home is built of one layer of bricks and a layer of plaster. When Scandinavia utilises double and triple glazing as standard, Melbourne is still mostly built with one. And so on.
It comes down to Melbourne's, and Australia's in general, high cost of labour. And it also comes down to Australia's, in general, low cost of energy; it's cheaper to build a flimsy house and heat it up ferociously, though without much efficiency, than it is to build a house that will look after its own temperature.
Or is it? The world is changing, and Australia seems to lag behind. In yet another arena.

The other week we surveyed a huge apartment building currently being built in our area.
The vultures, otherwise known as real estate agents, circled around us demonstrating their goods in their attempt to go for the kill. Yet, as nice as the apartments were, and they were nicely built at a very nice area, they were simply too small for people - whether singles or families - to happily live in.
It was funny to witness the lengths the builders went through in order to prevent would be buyers from noticing they are like Gulliver at the land of Lilliput. All fittings are smaller: the sinks are smaller, the toilets are smaller, the showers are smaller. To top it all off, we were informed that the buyers of these apartments will even receive a free fridge! We were not surprised to see this was a 300 litre fridge fit in a custom made enclosure; no normal fridge could fit those apartments.
Hundreds, thousands of such apartments are being built in Melbourne as we speak. Apartments that no one really wants to live at. Apartments where only people stuck with no better choice will end up at.
So why do such apartments get built in the first place? They are there because they are not designed to enrich the lives of their residents; they are there in order to lure the prospective property investor, or rather to turn normal folk into official Australian Investment Property Owners. That's all there is to it; no more and no less.
If there ever was a telltale sign for how far Australians can be driven by their greed, it is in the apartments they build for themselves. Those apartments will be there for decades to come, making the lives of our younger generations and those that follow miserable and ensuring they remember us not as fondly as we would hope.
And we let it be the case, driven as we are by short term greed.

Image by Timber Floors, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Security Dos

The last couple of weeks have seen an unprecedented amount of computer vulnerabilities surface up into public knowledge. All Mac users, we have been told, are exposed to a certain online vulnerability that they simply cannot escape and chances are Apple will not fix in the foreseeable future. Android users have been hit with one unavoidable security vulnerability after the other, all of which quite severe, with hardly a hope of rectifying the situation - the direct result of an eco system featuring thousands of different devices distributed through numerous telcos that couldn't care less about the security of their end user.
What can a simpleton user do in the face of such overwhelming odds?
The results pretty much speak for themselves. Most users do not do enough. Most users actually have no idea what they can do. For most users, having an up to date antivirus software that gives them a green tick of approval is all that is required in order to consider their PC environment safe.
Well, it isn't enough.
The fact of the matter is, if one wants to stay on top of the latest computer security hazards, one has to spend a lot of time keeping oneself informed with the latest news as well as on keeping one's computing armada (all PCs, smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles for a start, not to mention the latest in the Internet of Things) up to scratch. And even that does not guarantee anything come the next vulnerability, or come a vulnerability that the world is simply unaware of.

As depressing as the above may sound, this does not mean that one needs to turn the other chick. Leave that to Jesus; you can still put up a fight. There are actually several simple things you can do, things that will help reduce your personal risk significantly - to the point of being able to consider oneself almost (but never) in the clear.
Here are the three top measures you can take in order to keep on top of your online security, as recommended by yours truly:

1. Keep your devices and applications patched up with the latest version of everything:
Make sure you install the latest updates to your PC/smartphone/etc operating system as soon as these updates are released and up to the latest patch available. Do the same to the applications you use, particularly those that use the Internet: your web browsers are the classic example.
Note Microsoft releases most of its security updates on what it calls Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of the month; make sure you run your Windows Updates shortly after. Adobe has, by now, synchronised itself to Microsoft time, publishing its releases at the same time. Apple has a less regular release schedule but it will let you know when its gadgets are ready for an update. Ubuntu stands clear of the field, regularly checking for all relevant updates and handling all relevant updates at the same time seamlessly in the background while requiring not much more than a mouse click.
Android stands out as the black sheep of the family, as already mentioned. If you do go with Android, I would recommend buying a model that guarantees being able to receive regular updates - say, Google's own Nexus models. Beware of buying your Android gadget through a telco, because that telco will hold you back from updating your device later on.
What good is keeping your device up to date this way? After all, especially with Apple, keeping it up to date will also mean sacrificing battery power and speed?
The answer is simple. With each patch that's being released, the latest round of security hazards and vulnerabilities is taken care of. At the same time, due to them being taken care of, they also become public knowledge. Thus, at the same time that a solution is being offered to the public, the various rogue elements of the electronic world are offered a raw list of vulnerabilities they can try and exploit through the large ranks of everybody out there that fails to keep themselves patched. And exploit they will; you can count on it. It's a rule of nature.
You do not have to put yourself in the ranks of the exploited. Patch up. Avoid the non patched like the plague that it is.

2. Use a password manager
I have discussed password managers here before. Password managers offer two key services: they let you easily maintain long and complicated passwords of a grade you will never be able to remember on your own, and they let each and every such password be unique.
In turn, this helps you in two ways. Nowadays, when passwords get lost, that usually happens in the form of a massive database leak at the company holding on to your password. Usually, if those companies are up to their game, the passwords will be hashed - meaning, it will take some effort of behalf of the hacker to actually know what your password is. If you use a strong password created by a password manager, as opposed to a simple dictionary word (like "password"), there's a good chance that hacker would never be able to put their hands on your actual password. It's a maths game; the hacker's "guess the password" utility can only guess so many options during the hacker's lifetime. A good, password manager generated password, will take them a few billion years to guess using today's hardware. We can live with that.
Occasionally the hackers will get your password, though. Too many companies like Sony and Adobe exist out there, keeping your passwords as plain text. This is when having unique passwords helps. In most of the latest rounds of online identity thefts, the reason the hackers were able to get into people's accounts was to do with the fact those people used the same password on multiple websites/devices. That will never happen if you use a password manager!
I have recommended 1Password here before. It's actually free for iOS devices, but it will cost you on a Mac or Windows. LastPass has recently reduced its prices, now offering free services; you pay to get your passwords synchronised across devices.
Do have a look into such a product, it would be one of the best things you'd ever do for the sake of your online security. Sure, password managers do not negate all risks; they actually introduce new ones. But the fact of the matter is, you are much safer in the hands of the security experts from AgileBits (makers of 1Password) than in your own humble hands alone. You should exploit their expertise to your own benefit!

3. Disable
This last measure is simple. If you don't need something running on your computer or your gadget, disable it. Better yet, remove it.
You're asking for examples. I'll give you two.
Adobe Flash is something you should be able to live without nowadays. Lately it also happens to be our major source of security hazards, with even Yahoo ads injecting malicious codes into web pages of the most popular of websites. YouTube is where most of us needed Flash before, but nowadays YouTube and most video streaming websites have moved on to HTML 5, clearing the path for you to get rid of this up to no good hazard. And if you really think you still need Flash, do yourself a favour: disable it. Modern browsers like Firefox and Chrome will give you the option to prevent Flash contents from running without your specific, direct, approval. Use that option!
My second example is Java. Ever since Oracle took over Java from the setting Sun, it failed to deal with security properly. As it happens, you're in luck: hardly anything out of the corporate world uses Java anymore (a lot of stuff uses JaveScript, but that's a different animal), so the chances of Java's removal having an effect on you are minimal. Indeed, most modern browsers no longer have Java, by default, and even Apple got rid of it a couple of years back. As far as I can tell, the main implication of removing Java on a home user nowadays is Minecraft - which is why I got my Minecraft on a console rather than a PC.