Sunday, 17 April 2016

Going Out with a Bang

One doesn't need to spend much time in one to figure out hospitals are a horrible place, depressing and miserable. Being underfunded they seem to act as society's trash can for those of us who can no longer contribute to our society of mass consumption. Alas, barring some sort of an apocalypse, most of thee gentle folk reading this text are destined to die at a hospital.
I, for one, argue this is the wrong way to die.
When my time comes, assuming it doesn't come in the surprising manner of a heart attack / stroke / truck, I would like to die at a place that feels like home. Better yet, at home.
Here's hoping that by the time my time comes, human euthanasia will be as acceptable as it is for pets.


It occurred to me, while working on my previous post, that the soundtrack to my death should probably be Led Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks. The song has a lot going for it: it is one of my favourites, and in the lyrics department it finishes off with "crying won't help you, praying will do you no good" and "going down now" (although in the song down means Chicago, not hell; or maybe Chicago is hell?).
Which, in my book, is yet another reason to pick euthanasia. Instead of dying at a depressing hospital, I want to die at home, sitting in my hi fi's hotspot, with When the Levee Breaks' drumming shaking the very foundations of the earth at the volume levels this song is meant to be played at.
That's the proper way to die.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Dream Band


More than a year after their remastered albums started popping out, Led Zeppelin still represents the bulk of my music consumption. I enjoy surveying the new releases, especially in the less publicised genres of jazz and classical music, but when the time comes for some afternoon delight it's Led Zep time.
Oddly enough, my mates Robert [Plant] and Jimmy [Page] have hit front page news this week through the lawsuit claiming, 45 years later, that Stairway to Heaven stole its core theme from another song. I won't comment on that matter for two reasons, one being my lack of objectivity on the matter and the second being my general views on copyright matters.
This state of affairs did get me to think, though. As I argued last year, there is this objective scale with which one can claim that certain music is superior to other music. I claimed this is the case with Led Zeppelin, and as proof I offered the superiority of the band members' skills as musicians. This led me to contemplate: if I was able to design the band of my dreams, who would be its members?
Interesting thought. So without further ado, here is the long version of this 2c thought of mine.

Guitarist
That's a tough one. Technically speaking, everyone claiming to be an expert argues Hendrix is the best ever, but - with all due respect - Hendrix never "did it" for me. The ones that did, in ascending order, peak with:
Mark Knopfler: By far my favourite guitarist during my youth, I find that my taste has changed and Dire Straits' style, though still good, is now outdated.
David Gilmore: Pink Floyd's is probably the guitar I listened to the most. That said, Gilmore lacks the virtuosity of the true masters.
Jimmy Page: Winning by points, but still winning, is the versatile guitarist from this band called Led Zeppelin.

Bass
Another hard one with two very equal nominations.
John Paul Johns: Frankly, I tended to dismiss this member of Led Zeppelin's rhythm section. Until, that is, opportunity let me listen to his skills properly over remastered versions and good hi fi (try In My Time of Dying for a fine example). The guy's a genius!
Jack Bruce: Still my vote for Cream of the crop, by virtue of coming up with the tribal theme powering Sunshine of Your Love and me seeing him in live action.

Drums
Probably the easiest category to pick a winner from.
Phil Collins: I mention him in here because his work with Genesis has been the first time I took special notice of the drums.
Stewart Copeland: The Police's was probably the first to make me notice drums can do more than just set the rhythm.
Ginger Baker: Cream's drummer clearly stands out. I would recommend his jazz work, where his brilliance continues to shine. Pretty much the only drummer that comes close to our winner.
John Bonham: The reason why the drumming category is so easy to pick a winner for. The guy was so capable I often still think I'm listening to an entire band of drummers. Most notable is his performance in one of my all time favourite songs, When the Levee Breaks; and if you were to argue the drums there stand out just because of the way they were recorded, I will simply answer back: "Exactly".

Keyboard
Genesis' Tony Banks is worth mentioning, but to Doors' Ray Manzarek go the spoils. I mean, when was there a time other than his when one would go "wow, listen to this organ solo"? I mean Light My Fire, mostly, but there was plenty more where that came from. Not to mention the fact Manzarek did the whole of The Doors bass (the band did not have a bass guitarist).

Saxophone
John Coltrane, whom I love supremely.

Trumpet
Miles Davis, not for his skills with the trumpet as much as for his ability to invent brand new genres of music.

Vocals
And so we reach the category I have the most doubts on.
Robert Plant: I can't point out what it is, exactly, that renders him a good singer. I will note, however, his ability to manage both the soft and the hard with Led Zeppelin (since which he's mostly been focusing on the soft).
Sting: Because he built a fortress around my heart.
Jim Morrison: Oh, that hypnotic voice!
Alas, with all due respect to my male colleagues, the best to be found in the human voice charts belongs to the females of the species. There are plenty, literally tons, of women whose voice can and has mesmerised me; standing at the top of these ranks are:
Kate Bush: She seems to have always been part of my existence. I prefer her earlier work (The Kick Inside is one of those albums I'm always glad to pay a visit to), but hey, what a voice throughout.
PJ Harvey: One of the most talented musicians ever. A special corner of heaven is reserved for her old strident work, with pieces such as You're Not Rid of Me. My all time favourite is To Bring You My Love, where it sounds as if the microphone was planted in her belly. So powerful!
Bjork: I cannot say I like her more experimental work, but I will say I like her voice. A lot. Her debut solo album, Debut, is one of my reference albums for sheer quality and versatility. In the personal memories department, I cherish the moment I bought it, at a shop that doesn't exist anymore in a cinema building that doesn't anymore in my childhood town, accompanied by two of my best childhood friends whom I am still very proud to call my friends. I know, this has nothing to do with Bjork herself, but who cares.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

People Don't Read

I wonder if this has anything to do with the dumbing down of our written communication in this age of Facebook and Twitter, but it seems to me as if somewhere along the way people have lost their ability to read. Or, to pinpoint, their ability to comprehend the written word.
Things are fine as long as one sticks with writing a simple, non nuanced message. Dare write something more complicated, with arguments and counter arguments, and maybe even delve into finer detail? Get lost!
It happened to me several times with the past fortnight that I wrote detailed emails, expecting the addressees to appreciate the fact in order to supply me with the exact answer I needed. But no, each and every one of those people failed their reading comprehension: one totally ignored me, another came back with that most stupid "I respect your opinion [but won't do shit about it]", and the third had me attend in person just so I can say exactly what I wrote down in the email.
No, I do not think today's people are dumber than older generations. I think it's clear it is exactly the opposite. However, I suspect that a modern day's brain is so flooded with messages that there is no room for anyone to accept the complicated anymore. And that's sad, because life is complicated.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The People's Car

There are a lot of factors to take into account when looking for a car, but I was usually working under the assumption these are to do with the car itself. Recently I learned that approach of mine was rather naive; there is more to a car than just the car. There is the matter of the dealership with which you interact.
Take, for example, our adventure with a local car dealership. I won't name the brand the dealership represents, but - in an effort to help you with your German skills - I will mention it translates to car ("wagen") for the people ("volks"). I will also mention that particular manufacturer has been starring in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons, having found deeply involved in a con to cheat on emissions laws. Heads should roll, on the floor.

DSC_0031

Anyway, we made our way to said dealership, and eventually - the place was quite crowded - found a sales representative that would talk to us. She had us sitting down and asked, in a rather peculiar manner given that should have been the start of her sales pitch, whether we have any questions.
I did my homework and I did have questions. "Do all your cars use premium fuel", I asked.
Yes, I was told, and that is because non premium fuels ruin their cars' engine, came the reply.
So there you have it: an official representative of a global car manufacturer is telling me engines worldwide are being destroyed by the very fuel they are designed to run on.
Just to clarify, I would have gladly taken something along the lines of "we design our engines for top performance and efficiency, hence their reliance on premium fuels" as an answer. It happens to be the truth, too. I was simply trying to inquire whether other non premium models exist, but instead I was subjected to bullshit propaganda lies.
Affairs did not improve. The salesperson asked us next if she can interest us in diesel models. Given the above mentioned emissions scandal, I was genuinely surprised and asked whether these are still on offer (given the problems are yet to be solved and those engines are still breaking the law). My reaction seemed to have personally offended our helper; it became clear she was not going to help us in the least, but was rather doing her best to get rid of us.
We chose to spend our money elsewhere.

To put it simply, a car manufacturer or its representative dealership that thinks it can sell me a car for Goddess knows how much money but refuses to adequately address my questions does not deserve my money. Nor yours.
It appears as if this manufacturer is working under the assumption that the people of Australia should be thankful to it gracing us with its cars. Me, I went elsewhere, wishing their business practices would soon see them wiped off the market.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Greed

And now it's time to ask myself a question I asked several times already during the lives of my blogs:
Ads?

Last time I had ads on my blog I got myself a nice check (or cheque, as per the rather grotesque Australian English version). Nothing to help with the deposit for my Tesla, but a nice one nevertheless. It also occurred to me that, hits wise, my blogs are scoring nicely; if I was to deploy ads full time, as opposed to merely trying to see what extra analytics data they bring along, I should be able to get more such nice surprises.
You know me, I like money. On the other hand, I dislike ads; I block them fervently with every means at my disposal. I also detest the unwritten contract of the Internet, the one that says that one shall be allowed to access contents freely for the price of one being exposed to ads as well as tracking mechanisms that trade with one's privacy under the false pretense of attempting to offer more relevant ads.
Despite these fine arguments, I am still inclined towards adding ads. For two reasons.
First, given my blogs are hosted by Google, Google already deploys trackers from its vast arsenal over these pages regardless of whether they come bearing ads or not. Seriously, if you're reading this on the actual website (as opposed to an RSS feeder of sorts), do yourself a favour and use protection such as Privacy Badger, Ghostery, Disconnect, or any of many blockers available on iOS (try Focus, Mozilla's implementation of Disconnect) and Android. And in the name of all that is pure, do not read this blog while you're logged in to Google.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The security of our online data is being compromised again and again by all sorts of folks and companies who are simply ignorant of the grave potential consequences of what they are doing. By now I am sick of being the only one that notices these things and raises the alarm bells.
Perhaps one needs to be the victim of identity theft to be able to feel what I am feeling? That said, if that is the case, how come I am the only one? Why is it that everyone else is so ignorant on these matters? How come everyone else is accepting things the way they are, no matter how shitty they are?

Stabbing

As can be expected, problems start with institutions running on low budgets. In other words, our health and education systems.
This past month I noticed an interesting fact. All the medical institutions I have been visiting, from GPs through dentists, specialists and culminating with private hospitals, all of them are still running on Windows XP. That’s incredible given how long we have had to move away from Windows XP, the fact that by now those institutions should have learnt their lesson, and the fact that some of these specialists and private hospitals are actually swimming in money.
I can see how hard it is for a bulk billing GP clinic to make the upgrade effort, though. By the same token, these are the people maintaining the bulk of our deeper secrets as well as some of our most important personal info. And by continuing to use their archaic system with their multitudes of well publicised vulnerabilities, they are sacrificing the security of all of us.
Oh, and do I need to mention last week’s case, when a clinic sent us a whole set of documents relating to another patient of theirs? Those documents contained pretty much all there is to know as far as that patient’s health was concerned: contact details of patient and doctor, Medicare and private health numbers, you name it. When we pointed the mistake out to the clinic their excuse was they misfiled our information because both patients have the same name.
You know your information is in good hands when you hear that.

Next in line is the education system.
Last year, our school started implementing a system to send us notifications with. It felt much better then what fellow parents in sending their kids to other schools had to endure. One such school forced all parents to communicate via Twitter (a commercial company making its money from data mining people's tweets), comfortably forgetting that Twitter is thus a part of all children related communications.
Things changed at the start of this school year. Us parents were informed that all communications with the schools and the teachers will now be based on this system; generally speaking, no more emails. To emphasise the point, school started a competition between classes: the first to have all parents registered on the system would win an award. The following week, all children had it in their homework to ensure their parents are registered; as the children know all too well, those that do not “do” their homework by Friday are punished.
It was time for me to check this system out. Up to that point, I couldn’t care less if all the notifications we received were public; no one cares if “tomorrow is pink dress day, don’t forget to come dressed in a pink dress”. However, when I am now required to enter some very personal information into the system, information of the type that can be used to separate me and the contents of my bank account, my alert level steps up a notch.
So I went to the system provider’s website and checked their privacy policy. I could tell they were reliant on Google systems, which is not a good match for school; one doesn’t want Google to mine their children’s data. I could also tell that privacy policy missed out on vital information, such as how the school’s data is stored: does it reside on a server on someone’s garage? Is all the data stored with, say, Google? For a parent to trust their child's data with someone, one expects more than the usual "we take every measure to protect the data" ass covering statements.
Curiously, the privacy policy stated the facilities utilise Google Analytics and provided instructions for parents on how to avoid Google Analytics’ tracking. Adding to the intrigue was the fact our school’s facilities did not actually utilise Google Analytics (but rather some other trackers), plus the fact those counter measures specified in the privacy policy cannot be applied to a smartphone app.
Thus, several weeks ago, I contacted the provider with questions concerning the application of their privacy policies. To date I am still waiting for an answer.
A week went by and my son was threatened by his father’s lack of registration to the school facilities, so I decided to give those a try despite the lack of provider feedback. I did not get too far: that password protected website, where all the school communications are now being dealt through, and where tons of private information is now stored? That website is uses a very open HTTP protocol with no protection whatsoever. Any two cent hacker in Russia listening in to the traffic could pick my login credentials up, as well as all the rest of the information passing through. And we know there are enough such people in the world (Russia, please accept my apologies for picking on you) that actually do so.
So I raised a complaint with school and wrote on my child’s homework form that I refuse his homework. Two weeks later, I am still waiting for a reply.
I know what’s going to happen. No one would answer my feedback on account of no one willing to take the “credit” for coming up with such a shit system. Further, now that there is awareness on the matter, no one would dare claiming “the facilities are well protected as they are”, because they know they will only be making fools of themselves and endanger their positions once matters are escalated. Talking escalation, once I am fed up and do bother to escalate things, I will be the school’s evil parent, the one single person because of whom this entire lovely system had to be dropped.
But hey, I love being the evil guy. The thing that amazes me is how, in this school with more than 500 children, I happen to be the only evil parent.

Then again, it’s not only the health and education systems that screw with our online security. There are also tons of companies out there seeking to save a buck by not giving a fuck about their customers’ data security and privacy.
Take my car manufacturer as an example. I received an email from them informing me I can now save time and book my car services online. Not only that, but online is the only place I could go to find out how much I can “save” through their service capping plans.
So I went to have a look. And guess what? Just like that school online facility, this car manufacturer - a global brand with tons of stuff going for it, racing titles and all - is also completely insecure. That could be fine, still, if all I want is to book a service time slot. Alas, in order to do so - or, for that matter, in order to receive that service capping information - I have to provide a long list of private details through that very exposed website. Screw that.
So I raised a formal complaint, citing the manufacturer’s own privacy policy claiming that “We take all reasonable steps to protect the security of personal information collected by us.” Unlike school, that email of mine was quickly escalated through the car manufacturer’s upper echelons. Within a day the matter was raised before their IT provider. They also called me the next day to let me know they agree with me. I still doubt they will do anything about it; that would require them to spend some cash.
Amongt other things, they pointed out yours truly is the first of their customers to ever notice the problem. Sometimes I hate being right.


Image by Seniju, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Monday, 29 February 2016

I Play Video Games

This weekend I finished a video game I was playing on my iPad, Hero Emblems. It was fun; I played the last battle together with my son, and we deployed the much dreaded "super defence" tactic to beat two bosses in a row.
According to the game stats, I spent 45 hours on this game, a game that cost me $1. In comparison, I spent much less time on all the my recent PS4 A Titles combined, a list that includes prestigious games such as Fallout 4, Star Wars: Battlefront, and Project Cars. Games I spent hundreds of dollars on.
Clearly, the latter are way better games than Hero Emblems. Fallout 4, in particular, won every Game of the Year award I am aware of.
Even more clearly, none of this glory matters. At this particular chapter of my life, accessibility matters much more than quality. Being able to have a short go at something in between doing other things is the one thing that still allows me to play a video game; with Fallout it takes an hour just to warm up. Me, I rarely get a straight hour of gaming anymore.
I would love it if game developers take notice of the fact. I already had one iPad game, World of Tanks Blitz, win my Game of the Year award last year; by all objective accounts, Hero Emblems should walk all over Fallout this year.


Hero Emblems image used under the assumption of fair use

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Apple, the Champion of Privacy

You might not be aware of it, but as we speak Apple is entangled with the FBI in a struggle to determine whether it [Apple] should or should not devise a backdoor that would allow authorities to hack their way into an iPhone 5C. This is a big deal, for the simple fact things won't end there; it is already obvious more iPhones are on the waiting list. It is obvious other countries, like Russia or China, will follow shortly on the "let's put Apple under pressure" agenda. And it is obvious your average criminal will nose around, too.
In other words, Apple, in this current standoff, is the Champion of Privacy for all smartphone yielding people in the world. No matter where you are or what smartphone you use, eventually the outcome of this case will trickle down to affect you in person.
It goes without saying that I am firmly on Apple corner's in this fight. Any security cyber expert worth a cent would agree. It's just that the FBI is waving that good old "terror alert!" flag to scare enough people out of their wits in order to create an actual controversy.
It's just that I wouldn't have picked Apple, a commercial company whose only interest is making a profits, as my champion.

IMG_1688

On the other hand, there are things to be said on behalf of Apple, especially since Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs. I'll give you a couple of examples.
A couple of months ago I attended a design workshop at my local Apple shop. It was free, and it was clearly designed as a plug for the iPad Pro, but it also taught me a couple of useful things. [And as per the iPad Pro, there really is very little reason for the average person to acquire one, although I wouldn't mind at all if Tim cut down the price to reasonable levels so I could play World of Tanks Blitz on a 13" tablet.]
The thing that surprised me about the workshop was that my fellow students were all elderly people who, quite clearly, knew nothing about design. The situation clarified itself at the end of the workshop, when one of them turned to the instructor and asked him by first name, "what are you doing next week?"
As it turned out, there is a group of retired people in my area that meets up regularly for Apple's free workshops. I would say it's a win-win; they are armed with their iPads and such, while Apple gives something back to the community.
The other week I visited that same Apple shop again to sort a minor thing out (Apple is currently running a product recall on Aussie power plugs). Welcoming me at the entrance was a very disabled Apple employee on a wheelchair. He might have been disabled but he helped me just like any other Apple employee would have. It's just that one hardly encounters disabled employees in the retail industry! It is therefore important to applaud Apple for what it is doing here.
So yes, I know Apple is a company that works on a very capitalism based greedy framework. It's a company that avoids paying taxes, a company that has legions of underpaid workers employed under grim conditions on its behalf in China, and a company that uses minerals obtained through questionable means from war torn countries. As do all other notable companies in the industry.
Sometimes, however rarely, the interests of the public and the interests of a company align. Which is why, at this moment in time and against this particular background, Apple stands out as a likable company.

Image by EFF Photos, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence